The newspaper and magazine industries continue their steep slide into oblivion. At risk, literally, is the public square, since newspapers emerged a couple hundred years ago in order to deliver the news—and often rules and regulations—individually to the newly literate and urban citizens who used to receive it from the town crier, or read it on placards in the neighborhood and village centers. We see its relic form in today’s supermarket bulletin boards. However, mass media—radio, film, television and computers—broke the newspaper’s monopoly on the debate among the educated, enlightened and informed. No one can take the place of a big city newspaper editor and his staff. When they go, the world goes. And, unbelievable as it seems, newspapers and magazines are going.
This isn’t merely a nostalgic loss recalled in a daydream. This nightmare signifies the collapse of an intellectual order that accompanied the rise of the printing press in 1440 and not only ushered in the modern forms of scientific discovery, democracy and free speech, but also fostered public education, literacy and upward mobility, particularly in the US, still the world’s most hopeful beacon of wealth, health, personal fulfillment and happiness, if not the only one. Anyone emigrating from the US to Europe? We take free speech for granted. Foreigners don’t.
The internet threatens not only to shatter this benevolent order—this real intellectual world—but also to prevent any new or evolving one to emerge, since its virus-like replicating quality prevents inquiry, thought and orderly discussion, replacing them with a chaos of dull and addictive ephemera. For example, as difficult as it is to accomplish, it is much easier to publish a correction in a newspaper than on a blog or journalistic website. In the predator-filled worldwide web, a “correction” breeds new versions of the original mistake, as occurs regularly on Wikipedia.
Consider slavery. I believe that slavery would not have been abolished, had not the newspapers—as well as hymnals—been allowed to flourish. Today’s international scourges—illegal drugs, child abuse, illiteracy, pornography—are not attacked by major editorial voices on the web. Indeed, several of these plagues are spread by the internet. Imagine if the web had replaced newspapers in the 1830s. Slave trafficking would’ve boomed rather than been held up to intense scrutiny. And now, what pulpits have we? What news bureaus? Perhaps churches, temples, mosques and synagogues will replace our newspapers, or provide a welcome and helpful parallel. Daily devotions alongside local news, obituaries and crossword puzzles.
After all, what is the purpose of knowledge?
Last week, three young people were gunned down five blocks from my office in the middle of the night outside a bar. Few at our busy office got any news of it until a couple days ago. Yet all we ever hear about—day in and day out—are the petty crimes of people in “the public eye”. I, for one, am concerned exclusively with critically wounded teenagers a few blocks away. That I wish to know about, and in great detail. That’s my “localism”.
Take gardening knowledge. Who’s doing what to whom, with whom and when? And it better be either old or rare. Who really cares? Yet, how many tomatoes fruit on one plant or vine, on average? How many pea pods off a single vine? How many green beans? How many bell peppers fruit off a single plant? How many cukes off one plant? Anyone ever notice how many seeds are contained in an average $3.00 packet of lettuce seed? Last week at my local big-name supermarket, Boston lettuce was $1.75 per head, and it was a sorry looking thing. I wanted to buy it out of pity. (Also, for the first time since the early 1970s, the parking lot was almost empty on a weekend afternoon.)
Is the fact that a typical Boston lettuce seed packet contains 800 seeds relevant to today’s public debates about poverty, hunger and health? How about a discussion of the importance of public transportation—heard much about buses and light rail on TV or radio in the midst of $4.00/gallon gas and the Big 3 bailout? Not even the newspapers have had the time—or presence of mind—to bring it up. Forget about news websites as well. They’re too busy competing with the newspapers.