Self–government needs newspapers

(Denver Post, Feb. 27) So Facebook brought down the Egyptian regime. Until now, the only thing I knew it had brought down was my productivity—and that of many other Republicans old enough to know better, after we all stampeded there upon hearing how Democrats rode it to victory in 2008.

Obama in, Mubarak out, Zuckerberg to megawealth, and “Social Network” to the Oscars. Such is the Facebook scorecard so far, and there is 90% of the human race yet to be tapped—er, “friended.”

Well, call me a dinosaur, but I still believe the front line of self–government in a free society is citizens reading newspapers. Your pretty pixels on a shimmering screen are fine. But ink on pulp, served up at the breakfast table for Printosaurus Retrogradus to devour, digest, and act upon, remains the superior medium for effective political engagement in my book.

If you are reading this on newsprint—and about half the total audience of the Denver Post now may not be—you probably agree. Our task is to bring along enough of our fellow Americans, especially the next generation, so that newspapers can survive economically and the country, with their help, can keep renewing itself politically.

He’s gone apocalyptic, some will say. He’s a curmudgeon trapped in the 1950s, a technophobic troglodyte. He’s mad because his email service, America Online (itself pathetically passe’), has merged with the Huffington Post—and ISP wasn’t supposed to stand for “incessant socialist propaganda.” His prejudice for the fish–wrapping, birdcage–lining news medium of yesterday over the wild and woolly Web of today is groundless.

Maybe; the 1950s charge isn’t actually that far off. But the prejudice none of us who love newspapers should apologize for is simply a matter of setting value on their more comprehensive, structured, and reasoned interpretation of current events—in contrast to the fragmentary, fleeting, and impressionistic patchwork one is likely to get from the unedited maelstrom of online sources.

I want, and we should all want, the neighbors who share with us the duties of governance in city, state, and nation to be thinkers equipped for deciding responsibly. Does democracy carry the inescapable risk that your carefully considered vote will be cancelled by that of some shallow–minded flake? Boy, does it—which is all the more reason to work for a civic ethos where informed consent is encouraged and impulsive irresponsibility is frowned on.

Editorial gatekeeping and quality control in our news and opinion media cannot be mandated (thank God for the First Amendment), but they must not be lost. Twitter mustn’t become the only game in town. Newspapers didn’t lose their dominant agenda–setting and chaff–filtering function as radio and TV arose in the last century, and we need to hope they don’t lose it as the Internet burgeons today, even though electronic delivery may far outpace print delivery.

Election 2010 would have gone better here, in my opinion, if the Rocky Mountain News had still been around to compete with the Denver Post. But heaven help us if the people’s momentous decisions on candidates and ballot issues had had to be made with only the help of dueling websites and water–cooler gossip, and no Denver Post at all.

What keeps vital democracy–facilitating businesses like this one afloat as the new technology sorts itself out, I don’t know. I do know government subsidies are not an option. My personal crusade is more on the demand side, building readership.

That’s why, at every opportunity in my work on a college campus, I brace these laid–back millennial students to arm themselves for citizenship by reading print journalism and lots of it—the local paper, national papers, newsmagazines, opinion journals. Nothing else feeds your head in quite the same healthy way, I tell them. Please help me spread that message.

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