April 7, 2009

Thomas Jefferson. (Courtesy White House Historical Association)

Newspapers in Peril: What Would Jefferson Think?

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

When Thomas Jefferson made this observation in 1787, he made two assumptions.

One, that there would be newspapers. And two, that those papers would contain both a critical mass of information that citizens of a democracy would use in governing themselves, and serve as a check and balance on the power and reach of government itself.

More than two centuries later, both of Jefferson’s assumptions are being put to the test.

  • The economic model that supported the mass circulation newspaper industry more than 100 years is failing — or has failed, some say — for a variety of reasons.
  • As major news organizations cut back, retire or fire experienced and higher-salaried staff and pull back on coverage of institutions in favor of softer stories, there is reason to fear that the fabled "watchdog" role of the news media is endangered.

But if we’re going to put that Jeffersonian observation to a 21st century test, let’s also update the context.

A creative soul, Jefferson no doubt would have embraced the Internet and earlier, broadcast media. He would have valued the Web’s global information opportunities and its great potential to bring information and commentary directly to citizens.

As print media evolve — a more accurate evaluation than the oft-written death notices — we are seeing new methods of journalism gain traction: shared news coverage of local institutions among print, broadcast and Web news sources; split "publication days" during the week between print and online editions; and multimedia mixes that link bloggers and videographers to mainstream media.

Do the online news operations have the reach, depth or credibility of their older counterparts? The answer is, "not yet." From ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest; to the Huffington Post, a blog-turned-major news outlet; to online news aggregators like Google and Yahoo; to local bloggers and freelancers, we have access to as much information — if not more — than ever.

In Jefferson’s time, citizens got and evaluated news in a very personal way — as much from friends, colleagues and neighbors as from the "journals of opinion" that were the news publications of the era. In an ironic twist, from Twitter and blogs to Facebook and MySpace, we increasingly are returning to that same kind of personal, shared news experience.

A proposal by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., similar to the Newspaper Revitalization Act, would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies.

Whether Cardin’s proposal is a good idea or not, the goal for Americans ought to be to preserve a free and independent media, whether the medium is newsprint or electrons. As our methods of gaining news and information move from the village green to the village screen, the enduring theme is the preeminent value to our democracy that Jefferson placed on journalism and a free press.

For information on other First Amendment issues, please visit www.firstamendmentcenter.org and the Newseum’s Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery.

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