Friday, December 2, 2011

What If Newspapers Die?

Will we soon see the death of the newspaper? I recently asked my students if they had seen a front page article in a recent issue of the Times Picayune. Not one of them had seen the article and, in talking with them, I found that all of their knowledge about contemporary events, such as it was, came from national or international sources, mostly by internet, but also by television. They also apparently spent little time learning about the present or the past, preferring the amusements and social networking computers, ipads, and iphones offer so abundantly. This made me wonder what the possible disappearance of newspapers, especially local papers, will mean for American democracy.

Ideas take form through communication, and forms of communication shape ideas.  The newspaper was the most influential form of communication in American history before the invention of twentieth-century electronic media. Broadsheets and small local newspapers shaped American society during the colonial era. Benjamin Franklin was, of course, first known as a printer, and he got his start with the Silence Dogood letters he surreptitiously submitted to his brother’s newspaper. Newspaper articles were critical in moving the nation toward its war of independence and in debates over the new nation would govern itself. During the early nineteenth century, as the early limited property qualifications for voting vanished, newspapers became essential to the nation’s more expansive political culture.

In the 1830s, two eminent visitors from Europe, Fanny Trollope (mother of the novelist Anthony) and Alexis de Tocqueville, who can be regarded as the founder of political sociology, reported on what they both saw, from different perspectives, as the egalitarian nature of American society. Tocqueville took a generally positive view of the high degree of social mobility among Americans, while Mrs. Trollope held this mobility in disdain, believing that it made the great mass of vulgar people put themselves on the same level as their betters. Both of them saw the importance of newspapers to the people of the new nation. Although Mrs. Trollope, as might be expected, found the literary culture of Americans deplorable, she did note “the universal reading of newspapers” (Frances M. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1894 [1832], v. 1, p. 128). Similarly, Tocqueville found that the sheer number of newspapers limited the power of any particular periodical, but that the press in general “wields enormous power in America. It carries the currents of political life into every section in this vast country” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York: Library of America, 2004 [1835], p. 212).

The old flatbed press, essentially the same mechanism for printing with moveable type that Gutenberg had used, was a relatively slow mechanism that could print out sheets for distribution at coffee houses or other public places. By the beginning of the Jacksonian period, the steam-driven rotary press was making it possible to rapidly crank out thousands of pages at low prices. When James Gordon Bennett started publishing the New York Herald in 1835, his mass-circulation newspaper owed a great deal to the rotary press, but it also responded to a public demand for news already noted by Trollope and Tocqueville. With the invention and almost immediate spread of the telegraph in the 1840s,  the United States became an information society that included almost all of the American public, since estimates from census data show that over 92 percent of white males aged 21 or older were literate by 1850.

The growing mass-circulation newspapers were not as overtly partisan as the papers and broadsheets of the late eighteenth century had been. Still, the political and journalistic worlds were closely connected. This was not just because most of the news was political, then as now. Thoreau referred to the interweaving of press and politics in his dismissal of voting as a means of political reform. “I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency,” he wrote in the essay known as Civil Disobedience, “made up chiefly of editors and men who are politicians by profession” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, pp. 14-15).

One can find numerous examples of individuals who moved back and forth between the professions of editor and politician. The life of political operative Thurlow Weed provides a vivid illustration of the inseparability of popular press and electoral politics in the early nineteenth century. According to the hefty two volumes of his autobiography (1883), edited by his daughter Harriet Weed, Thurlow Weed developed an interest in the party politics of the Republican-Democrats and Federalists and an ambition to work with newspapers while he was still a child. After a short time as a cabin boy on a sloop between Catskill and New York, Weed went to work at the office of the Catskill Recorder when he was about eleven years old.  From there, Weed’s political rise and his journalistic work were two parts of the same career. Weed, sponsor of the career of Horace Greeley, later became a major figure in the administration of Abraham Lincoln and, as a publisher, an important player in Republican politics after the Civil War.

The political centralization of the nation owed a great deal to the expansion of the big national newspapers as means of mass communication. The role of the Hearst papers in promoting the country’s foray into international intervention, through “yellow journalism,” is legendary. These newspapers also were also fundamental, for good or ill, through muckraking and related activities, to the Progressive crusade to redesign American society by experts (which I’ve argued was a kind of domestic colonialism). Theodore Roosevelt, although he denounced the muckrakers (and, indeed, invented the term), was himself a journalist and owed much of his career to his ability to play to the newspapers.

So, what will it mean if a form of communication that has been at the core of American political life vanishes, or continues as a marginal medium, read only by small minorities? If the internet replaces the newspaper, will it democratize communication? Will it lead the attention of Americans away from the local communities traditionally served by hometown papers and into the placelessness of cyberspace? Or will it, as the example of my students suggests, encourage people to opt out of the consideration of serious information altogether and move us further into the brave new world of mass consumption?

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