This morning, I was putting on a yellow shirt for this event, as an homage to yellow journalism, when my wife suggested: You should wear black, white and red. You know the old joke: What's black and white and read all over? The newspaper! I didn't have a red tie, so my hair will have to do. It used to be redder. So now the joke is: What's black and white and not quite as read any more? Newspapers today!
When people I meet for the first time ask me what I do, I never say: "I'm news editor of Isthmus, a Madison weekly, and president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide group that watchdogs public access to meetings and records. (Also the author of two books, including the acclaimed Madison-based true crime story, Cry Rape, available from your local bookstore and on Amazon.com.)"
No. When someone asks me what I do, I tell them: "I'm a newspaper reporter."
I've been a newspaper reporter for nearly 25 years, mostly in Madison, at Isthmus. I'm proud to be a newspaper reporter. I consider it an honorable profession, even a noble one. But lately, there are signs that the profession is becoming endangered. And that is what I'm here to talk about today.
Everyone who's been paying attention knows this is a tough time for newspapers. Circulation is down. Advertising revenues are down. Readership is shifting to the web, and the economic base that sustained print papers has not followed suit. The consequences have been cataclysmic.
Here in Madison, The Capital Times has ceased daily print publication, and cut its staff by more than a third. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Journal and Isthmus have also cut staff. The Daily Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin, is no longer daily; it now comes out twice a week. For the people who remain newspaper reporters and editors, the job has gotten more demanding. We're working harder than ever, for stagnant pay and declining benefits. (I'll be passing a hat momentarily, so please, give till it hurts.)
I am not complaining about the advent of the web as a delivery vehicle for news and opinion. I think the Web -- especially my paper's web site, thedailypage.com -- does a lot of things right. It allows papers like Isthmus to compete, for the first time, on breaking news. It lets us provide additional information beyond what we print in our pages, importantly including documents that substantiate our reporting. We can create linkages to other stories, and allow past articles to be easily retrieved.
But I do think it's a troubling development that print newspapers are losing readership and clout, and are increasingly seen an anachronistic. Lee Enterprises, the Iowa-based company that's half-owner of the State Journal and Cap Times, has seen the value of its stock plunge from nearly $50 a share a few years ago to barely more than $3 a share today. The Journal Co. has gone from $20 a share to about $5 a share. Both are well-run and diversified companies that still turn a profit, year after year. But, to borrow a line from my former colleague Marc Eisen, investors act like we're in the business of selling horse-and-buggy whips.
This is especially ironic given that newspapers are more valuable than ever as authoritative sources of information. In fact, newspapers are the source of nearly all of the reporting being done on those three-minute news updates played on local radio stations. Newspapers are the source of nearly all of the commentaries posted by bloggers; they almost never do the hard work of picking up a phone and nailing down a story. They pick up a newspaper and decide that their personal reaction to what they read is so scintillating they have to share it with others.
Local alderperson Brenda Konkel recently wrote a blog post lamenting what's been happening to newspapers in Madison, which she commended for doing an excellent job of reporting local news. "Bloggers," she conceded, "aren't going to fill the void that reporters fill. They don't have the same access to people who make the news, they don't have the time to get the stories that reporters have and they don't have the respect and relationships that reporters get over time." Blog on, Brenda, blog on.
My purpose is not to criticize other media. I love radio, and never turn down a chance to be on it. I watch the news on TV, although I'm not a huge fan of the local news and I think "The Daily Show" does a better job covering the national political scene than any of the networks. I use the Web, and I write for the Web.
But there are things that newspapers do better than any of these other media. Providing in-depth coverage. Telling compelling human stories, like the State Journal's recent account of the couple disfigured for life in the 1998 Madison bus attack. Providing authoritative analysis. Making judgments about what is and isn't important. To give just one example: The revelation of John Edwards' marital infidelity was covered in most daily papers in one or two inside stories; but it dominated the cable news networks and the blogosphere for more than a week. Now it's Sarah Palin's pregnant teenage daughter. Are these stories really that important?
My concern is that newspapers seem to be losing traction at precisely the time when they should be gaining it. I worry that people are not replacing daily newspaper consumption with other quality information. They simply are not as committed to being well-informed. They seem more interested in being titillated or entertained. They are comfortable consumers of rumor and innuendo. They've lost the ability to distinguish good reporting from personal opinion disguised as journalism. They think the media is engaged in some vast conspiracy to keep them in the dark; and their solution to this perceived problem is to uncritically embrace unreliable sources.
As Jonathan Alter noted recently in Newsweek, "People so distrust the mainstream media that they may believe, say, lies about Obama being a Muslim that reach their IN box from their cousin's friend's brother, whose nephew got it from his mother-in-law, who can't recall where it came from in the first place, over the careful reporting of a reputable news outlet."
Conservatives say newspapers are hurting because readers are fed up with how liberal they are. Liberals say newspapers are hurting because they've become shills for conservatives and tools of corporations. Conservatives say the liberal press is not to be trusted, as evidenced by the fact that the New York Times had a reporter, Jayson Blair, who made stuff up. Liberals say the corporate press is not to be trusted, as evidenced by the fact that the New York Times had a reporter, Judith Miller, who reported incorrect information as fact and helped build the case for war in Iraq.
Here's what I say: Newspapers are hurting because the people who should be relying on them don't, and because those who do rely on them have decided they ought to be able to do so for free. Here's another admission from Brenda Konkel's refreshingly honest blog post: "I fully realize, I'm part of the problem. I advertise on Craigslist and other free internet sources for job openings, I canceled my subscriptions to the papers and don't pick up a print paper. There's no revenue coming in from me. It's not that I don't value the paper and that I wouldn't pay for it on-line . . . I just don't have to."
But at least Brenda still reads everything that's in the local papers, especially if it's about her. Other people have simply tuned newspapers out.
It's hard to fathom how this happened. As I wrote in the column that got me invited to speak here today, I grew up in a household that had virtually no books. And yet my parents read both Milwaukee papers each day. It was part of their lives. When I was a kid in Milwaukee, I had a couple of paper routes; I had about 70 customers during the week and 90 on Sunday; my routes took up about three complete city blocks. Today, a 70-customer paper route would probably cover a square mile.
Last year, before the Capital Times went under, I was biking home one afternoon through Madison's east side, on Sherman Avenue by Brearly Street. I watched the newspaper carrier drive down the street, making one stop near Brearly and one stop toward the end of the block, at John Nichols' house. Two subscribers in an entire city block. I shouted out, "Who killed the Capital Times? Well, after all, it was you and me."
So why are people not reading newspapers? I have examined the reasons they give, and I find them all unconvincing.
Reason No. 1: "I don't have time." That's ridiculous. Of course you have time. You just spend the time you have doing other things. I recently visited the Bily clock museum in Spillville, Iowa. The Bily brothers, Joseph and Frank, spent five decades of their life making these elaborate, stunning, intricate clocks -- masterpieces worthy of any art museum in the world -- using only hand tools. They never sold a single one. They made their living as farmers, planting crops and raising livestock. They built their clocks -- about two dozen in all -- in their spare time. And, the tour guide noted, they received three daily papers: The New York Times, the Chicago Sun, and the Des Moines Register. I assume they read them because, if you don't actually read the papers you get, one is more than enough. Trust me: If these guys had time in their lives for newspapers, so do you. So does everyone!
Reason No. 2: "It's just too depressing." Very common. People say they don't read the newspaper because it's all bad news. You know what? It isn't. There are all kinds of stories in the paper -- good news and bad, stories about people and trends and ideas and business and technology and sports. Take this morning's paper for instance: There's a story about how the mayor of Madison plans to include funding for a new downtown library and a new downtown parking ramp in his capital budget. There's a story about the impact of this spring's massive flooding on the state's tourism industry, There's a story about a woman who's husband killed himself and had his heart go to a guy who ended up also marrying her, and also killing himself; and by the end of this article, you have a pretty good idea why. There's a story about an Edgewood High senior who got a perfect score on his ACT, and nearly aced his SATs. And, for those of you who have been biting your nails since Monday's Brewers; game, there's this: "Sheets' groin OK."
The people who say it's all bad news are just making excuses.
Reason No. 3: "It's all fluff." If I had a nickel every time somebody complained to me about lightweight stories that make it to the front page of, say, the State Journal, I'd have ... I dunno, a couple of bucks. But that's still a lot, seeing how there's no reason for people to be complaining to me, since my paper only runs worthy stories. Again, though, it's a bogus complaint. There are all kinds of stories in each and every issue. If you don't like the softer stuff, don't read it. And for Pete's sake, make up your mind: Do you not read papers because there's too much bad news, or not enough?
Reason No. 4: "You can't trust anything you read in the paper." This one really pops my cork. Truth time: You can trust almost everything you read in the newspaper. You know why? Because newspaper reporters work very hard to be accurate, and they get an amazing number of things right. Not just facts, names and figures, but nuance and context. We're the only profession I know of that runs corrections when it makes mistakes. When was the last time you heard a doctor say: "I misdiagnosed two patients recently; one of them kind of died because of it. My bad."?
But it goes beyond not getting things wrong; most reporters I know are obsessed with getting things right. A few weeks back I was working on a story in which someone said he drove to see his son in prison twice a month, and that it was a three-and-a-half-hour trip, one-way. I checked it out. I learned from MapQuest that the driving distance between the person's home and the prison was 161 miles and took 3 hours and 21 minutes. I didn't feel comfortable saying it was a three-and-a-half hour trip -- that's nine minutes off -- so instead I said it was about 160 miles. I also filed an open records request for the inmate's visiting log to confirm that his father visited twice a month. That's the kind of thing reporters do all the time, to make sure what they put in print is as accurate as it can be.
Here's a simple way to educate yourself about the art of newspaper reporting: Go to any event in your community that you know will be covered in the paper. It can be a debate, a day of court testimony, a press conference, a Rotary event, even a baseball game. Pay close attention and take copious notes. Then go home and write up a story about what you've just seen. The next day, compare what you've written to the story that appears in the paper. I guarantee you'll have a new level of respect for newspaper reporters.
Reason No. 5: "Isthmus is the only good read in town." This is something I hear all the time, from people who do not read other publications. They are entitled to their opinion -- and, of course, I'm a little bit flattered by it -- but I disagree. The State Journal and Cap Times and Madison Magazine are all worthy publications. I'm not saying you have to read them all, but there are things they offer that my paper does not. The truth is that Madison has an unusually large number of talented reporters, on staff and freelance, because it's considered a good place to live. There are dozens of applicants for every local journalism job. If you can make it here, you might not be able to make it anywhere. But you probably don't suck. And neither does my competition. (Watch: They're going to come out now with t-shirts and coffee mugs that say: "The State Journal Doesn't Suck" -- Bill Lueders, Isthmus.)
So why are our papers struggling, given that they are staffed with talented and hard-working people and providing critical information? I'm rejecting the public's attempts to blame the product. I think it's because too many people no longer think it's important to pay attention to what is happening in their communities.
One of the most disturbing things I've heard in recent years was what Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard told me about the difficulty of picking a jury in Dane County for the first trial of former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. Guess what? It wasn't the least bit difficult. Blanchard had no problem finding potential jurors who were not prejudiced in their view of the case because they knew nothing at all about it. Here was one of the state's top legislative leaders, charged with multiple felonies for misconduct in office, and for most of the people who responded to the summons for jury duty that day, it was, ironically, news to them.
I know most of this people in the room are, like me, fans of newspapers. You read newspapers, you stay informed, you get involved. Good for you. But we all must grapple with the fact that the newspapers we love are in trouble. We can't count on them to remain viable without our help.
In my column, I suggested several things people could do to support newspapers. Like subscribing instead of reading for free. Like reading the ads and patronizing the advertisers. Like taking out a paid classified ad instead of using one of the internet services that are driving newspapers out of business. But there's one more thing I'd like to suggest, something that's important not just for the survival of newspapers but the survival of our democracy: We have to stop enabling people to be cheerfully ignorant about their world and their communities.
As I mentioned in my column, I met a UW-Madison student who lives within a mile of the residences where Joel Marino and Brittany Zimmermann was killed who, three weeks after the fact, was unaware that an arrest had been made in the Marino case. This student, until recently, lived in a house with nine other young adults; they didn't get any daily paper.
A few weeks back I shared a meal with a UW grad student who's lived in Madison for several years. Someone brought up the state Supreme Court election this April in which Justice Louis Butler was ousted by Michael Gableman. She didn't know a thing about it. Did I mention, she's a grad student in journalism?
That's outrageous. Somehow, we have allowed our fellow citizens to assume the rights of citizenship without the attendant responsibilities. No wonder we've elected dead people and candidates who have withdrawn from campaigns too late to remove their names from the ballots. No wonder we elected Mike Gableman.
This is probably as good a time as any to mention that the opinions I'm expressing here today are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Isthmus Publishing Company, its management or employees. Back to it:
We have tragically allowed shallow, barely-paying attention citizens to become the most important people in our democracy. It is because of them that candidates must curry favor with special interests to get the money they need to run TV commercials. This is where almost all of the money raised by political campaigns goes -- for TV ads. Who's the target audience? People so ignorant and out-of-the-loop that a 30-second TV ad may factor prominently in their decision.
This irresponsible behavior is not just tolerated, it's encouraged. Just watch: Between now and the election, there will be dozens of occasions in which you - along with every doofus in the country (notice I didn't say every other doofus) will be encouraged to vote. There will be comparatively few times that anyone will ask you -- or the doofuses (doofi?) whether or not you know anything about the issues or the candidates.
Enough, I say. Let's stop encouraging our fellow citizens to vote and start expecting them to stay informed. Let's stop making excuses for people who are not paying attention. Read the newspaper -- by which I mean, one or both of the local dailies, in addition to Isthmus and other publications. Talk to others about the interesting stories you've seen. And if they give you a blank look and admit they don't know what you're talking about, sigh and shake your head.