Aside from reading the Sunday comics, my first association with newspapers started in the seventh grade when I delivered the Brooklyn Eagle to subscribers who sometimes paid their bills. In high school and college, I contributed news articles, created advertisements, and played with feature columns. After college, I was a regular contributor to the Bakersfield Californian, at the invitation of Diane Hardesty, who was the Features Editor. So, not only do I have a long history with newspapers but also a steadfast belief that these publications are inherently important.
The conviction that underlies all other opinions that I express in today’s column is that local newspapers are essential to the maintenance of democracy in this or any other nation. And, I believe that these cornerstones of our republic are in danger of extinction.
During colonial times, newspapers emerged as an interesting sideline for printers and, for the most part, single-page condensations of stale news from Europe. But, in 1734, German American printer John Peter Zenger used his publication, The New York Weekly Journal, to criticize the newly appointed colonial governor, William Cosby, because of the leader’s cronyism. Cosby then issued a proclamation condemning Zenger for “scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections.”
Following up on the decree, Cosby sued Zenger in court for libel. Although Chief Justice James DeLancey sided with Cosby, Zenger’s lawyers took the case directly to the jury, claiming that if a statement can be proven true, it is not libelous even if it is defamatory. Many decades later, the “not guilty” verdict became one of the precedents that led to the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause.
In the meantime, newspapers were largely satirical vehicles by which printers could poke fun at England’s local rulers. In fact, James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, published The New England Courant, along with his associates who were known as the “Hell-Fire Club.” Their purpose was simply to annoy the elite and harass provincial legislators.
As the colonies edged toward open rebellion against foreign rule, newspapers, like The Virginia Gazette, maintained a heavy barrage against the King of England. Increasingly, editors provided a powerful force in favor of the unification of the colonies. Some, of course, remained loyal to their European roots.
After the success of the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton and others who favored the adoption of our Constitution chose to publish their “Federalist Essays” in The Daily Advertiser and The Independent Journal. Then, other newspapers throughout America reproduced the articles. So, it is correct to assume that newspapers of that era were highly propagandistic.
As the new nation began to take shape, James Gordon Bennett took control of the New York Herald and, in 1833, he introduced his brand by writing, “We… disdain … all principle, as it is called, all politics. Our only guide shall be good, sound practical common sense, applicable to the business and bosoms of men engaged in every-day life.” But, one person’s common sense is another person’s idiocy. The “news” was still highly peppered with opinion.
Before, during, and after the Civil War, newspapers slanted the news to suit their audience. The terms “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers” were used to describe editors whose bias ran counter to local opinion, especially in the South.
Toward the end of the 19th century, newspapers — in particular those controlled by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer — engaged in “yellow journalism,” a tendency to sensationalize conditions in order to promote some type of action. In this case, the outcome was America’s declaration of war against Spain. But, Pulitzer seemed to be haunted by his “yellow sins” and reformed his paper, The World, into a widely respected publication that provided facts without editorial comment.
By the 1930s, people typically read more than one newspaper per day. But, as radio became more sophisticated and then television arrived, newspaper readership began a gradual decline.
The modern press
By the time that I became involved with journalism in high school and college, the major newspapers of the country could be relied upon to furnish factual information. Indeed, my professors and journalism advisors emphasized the importance of substantiating every piece of information that was to be printed. Of course, there was, and still is, space in modern newspapers for satire and opinion, but that space is identified as “editorial,” “letter to the editor,” “op-ed,” or some similar designation.
Despite the dramatic change in newspaper content toward unbiased facts, the public has increasingly sought entertainment over journalistic objectivity. Since the beginning of this century, U.S. newspapers have cut their workforce by more than 50 percent. Writing for the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan says that during the past 15 years, the number of newspaper employees has shrunk from 412,000 to 174,000.
Ken Doctor of NiemanLab asks: “Cigar maker. Elevator operator. Pinsetter. Iceman. Lamplighter. Switchboard operator. Local daily newspaper reporter? How long will we have (until) we have to add this once-stable occupation to the list of jobs that once were — occupations once numerous that slid into obsolescence?”
In like manner, the Pew Research Center points out that, for newspapers, “2015 might as well have been a recession year. Weekday circulation fell 7 percent and Sunday circulation fell 4 percent, both showing their greatest declines since 2010.” This downward trend has been matched by a decline in revenue. Statista (a database of studies from more than 18,000 sources) shows a steady, uninterrupted annual decline in total newspaper revenue from $44.1 billion in 2008 to $28.2 billion in 2016, with other significant drops projected annually to 2020, which is the last year to be computed.
Yahoo reports that there were 9,310 newspaper businesses in 2001, but there has been a decline to 7,623 last year. There have also been shrinkages noted among magazines and books. The report states, “The number of periodicals, or (news) magazines, hit a high of 9,232 in 2008 and have been declining since then, with a total of 7,566 in 2016.”
Although I’m not a journalist by profession and my column sometimes runs to the nonsensical, I dread the thought that the American public now relies on FOX or MSNBC for “news.” Television news is, above all else, entertainment, not too different from the pamphlets that were published in colonial times. In some ways, perhaps we’ve come full circle, but with different technology. But print newspapers maintain objective reporting and analysis.