Decline of dailies

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(Host) As electronic media continues to grow in popularity, commentator Jay Craven worries that newspapers are becoming an endangered species.

(Craven) Recent surveys show that America’s newspapers are losing readers. These declines reflect a twenty-year trend and studies show that young people, in particular, use the internet for news far more frequently than they read newspapers. A 2004 Carnegie study puts the average age of newspaper readers at 53 and climbing.

It’s critically important that young people reach for the news, whether by turning to the web, tuning into radio, or checking out Jon Stewart’s Daily Show for a satirical spin. But is it enough?
Surely, public radio news has a singular quality that speaks for itself. It’s intimate and immediate, with a distinctive voice that print media can’t match.

Still, our best newspapers offer nuance, detail, depth, and complexity that is hard to achieve elsewhere.

Maybe I’m unusual, but I much prefer the daily paper to online news. I like turning the pages, skimming, scanning, and stopping to read. Invariably, I discover unexpected tidbits along the way.

Wherever I travel, I buy the local paper as the first order of business. You can learn a lot about a place by reading its newspaper. Vermont’s distinctive dailies and weeklies are no exception. They knit our communities together and help us know who we are and where we are. They ensure an informed population for critical decisions that affect our lives.

Through local papers, people celebrate each others’ successes, sustain small businesses, and let friends and neighbors know of civic and cultural events. Letter writers spar with editors and each other over a myriad of issues and we often know the writers by name and reputation. And how many kids thrill to the first sight of themselves in a news photo or sports story?

The local paper functions as a kind of village square. And it marks the starting point for many young writers. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens worked as journalists. Likewise, playwright George Bernard Shaw, and novelists George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, and Tom Wolfe.

Comprehensive national news and diverse commentary in papers like The New York Times and Washington Post are also essential in a democracy, especially one as large and powerful as the United States, where our decisions affect the world.

Joe Mathewson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, argues, in a recent edition of Editor and Publisher, that the civic importance of newspapers requires that we maintain them at any cost. Especially if the profit squeeze results in lower quality. And even if they need to become non-profits. Certainly, the model exists, through public radio and newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor.

Mattewson’s idea may seem far-fetched, but it underscores the irreplaceable value of newspapers and the need to keep them dynamic.

In coming years, competition for consumers of news will only increase. We can hope that existing free market modes will improve rather than diminish the quality and independence of our news. In order to do so, as Matthewson concludes, “newspapers will have to be very good indeed.”

This is Jay Craven from Peacham.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions. He spoke from our studio at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.

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