Recently, Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio and before the Downtown Madison Rotary lamenting the decline of newspaper readership. He suggested that our newspapers are really quite good and those who complain about them are inventing reasons to justify their own laziness and lack of effort to stay informed.
I beg to differ.
The decline of American daily newspaper circulation owes to readers recognizing that the product they are offered is usually poor, not worth their time or money. The Internet has offered people a choice - and they are taking it.
Part of the problem comes directly from journalists and editors themselves, who are seldom self-critical. At the university they are told of their unique role, protected by the U.S. Constitution. People in less grand professions, like plumbers, engineers and people who make things, are not singled out for such glory.
Armed with an inflated sense of self-worth, journalists watch All The President's Men while failing to notice the real story being told: While every newspaper had access to the information about the Watergate break-ins, most of them were either in bed with Nixon or too lazy to report the story.
Most U.S. papers get their local news from the police scanners and fill their sports pages by calling high school coaches. You can look for hard-nosed reporting, but you don't often find it. Business pages have been reduced to local boosterism, and coverage of anything 20 miles from the hometown is compressed into one or two pages.
All this would be unimportant if there was a choice in newspapers available. However the U.S. is, I believe, unique among democracies in that most people have access to only one daily newspaper in their hometown.
In England there are normally nine national daily newspapers available at every convenience store and for home delivery. In Scotland (a country with a population smaller than Wisconsin) there are 12. In the Czech Republic (population 10 million), five daily newspapers are available everywhere.
Countries such as India and the Philippines have a thriving free press offering readers a wide choice of options in several languages. If good newspapers can be produced in the so-called Third World, one wonders why the U.S. fails so miserably.
The answer is competition - or, rather, the lack of it. When readers have a choice, the product improves.
But competition is no longer the norm in the U.S. Lately it has become common for all the newspapers in a state, or part of a state, to be owned by the same company, so even the chance of competition has been lost.
What is particularly sad is that as newspapers have been taken over by conglomerates, no attempt has been made to use the combined strength of increased circulation to improve news coverage. News gathering has been allowed to wither.
It is common in the U.S. for newspaper groups to have a combined circulation of a half-million or more. Newspapers with that sort of circulation in Europe maintain a network of correspondents around the world. The London Guardian, with a circulation of 355,750, has three permanent correspondents in the U.S. alone.
But many U.S. newspaper groups do not have a Washington bureau. Some do not even have representation in their state capitals. Gannett, with a combined circulation of more than five million, does not have nearly as many correspondents around the world, or specialists covering such subjects as education, health and science, as does the average European national newspaper.
Some will ask why this even matters. We have the Associated Press and Reuters. The problem is that news service reporters likely have no idea what, if anything, has been previously printed in any particular newspaper. They must therefore always write assuming that the reader knows nothing, instead of being able to assume the reader has some knowledge of an issue from previous reports.
Today's conglomerate-owned newspapers could, if they wanted, skillfully produce whole sections from a national bureau, transmitting full pages to be printed locally. Instead, hundreds of poorly qualified editors pick a hodge-podge of agency stories aimed at a sixth-grade education. Coverage of overseas news is especially poor, usually relating to something that has happened to an American somewhere rather than genuine coverage of another country.
Even in newspapers where the quality of writing is high, like The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, their market monopolies have led to laziness. Both papers have a design from the Stone Age. They have failed to take advantage of improvements in technology to improve layout and typography, add color and top-quality photojournalism.
Again this is because they do not have competition, so they do not have to improve. Most European papers have had redesigns every decade or so, and the quality shows.
The reason many U.S. newspapers have maintained circulation over the years is that they're cheap. But many readers have figured out that cheap is not the same as valuable. They can improve, but will they?
Frank Ingram, now of Green Bay, has lived in the U.S., Britain and Central Europe.