Are newspapers dying?

The Sunday opinion section is gone. So is the book review section. So are literally hundreds of the reporters I have come to respect over years of reading my local paper. What is happening in my hometown is happening in every city across the country. Layoffs. Cutbacks. Slow death.

Meanwhile, talk show hosts, who don't pretend to "report," who don't try to be "objective," who will tell you themselves, if they are being honest, that they are in the business of entertainment, sign record contracts. I don't begrudge them their riches. They're making money because their shows do. But for those of us who care about the role of a free press in a democracy, something is askew.

Not long ago, a fine newspaper reporter who covers the Supreme Court came to lecture in one of my classes about some of the cases then pending before the Court. Frankly, I didn't expect that many of my students would be familiar with his work. But I was wrong.

How many of you read the paper every day, he asked them. A surprisingly large number of hands went up. We looked at each other, puzzled. We both knew that circulation was dropping, that young people don't buy the paper in the same numbers that their parents did. How many of you read it on paper, I asked. Most of the hands went down. They read the paper; they just didn't buy it.

I'm not going to mourn the decreasing demand for newsprint. Let the trees live. The danger of reading newspapers online, I have discovered, is that you miss all the stories you don't think you'd be interested in until they catch your eye as you're turning the page. When I read papers online, I always read the political and legal stories, but I miss an interesting book review, a surprising side bar, an obituary that doesn't make it to the front index. The challenge for newspapers as they go online and off paper is to find a way to tell me about all the good stuff inside that I don't know I'm interested in until I read the first few lines or see the picture.

The bigger problem goes to the question of standards. "All the news that's fit to print," the motto of The New York Times, isn't really about printing, but about standards of fitness. It's about old-fashioned values like professionalism and fairness, about good and demanding editors who take the time to make sure you've checked the facts and given everyone a chance to respond before they put the story in the paper.

It's about the difference between the news pages and the editorial pages, the difference between reporting the news and commenting on it, and the need to respect that line and make sure readers can see where it is being drawn.

I'm not a reporter and I don't pretend to be. I write commentary. I offer opinions. I do so based on many, many years of working in politics, teaching law, not to mention raising kids and taking care of family. I try to be fair and I value my reputation for being honest, but I don't pretend to be objective. That's not my job.

But it should be somebody's. It has always been the job of newspaper reporters and editors to live by a set of rules that ensure that when you read a "news story," as opposed to an opinion column, you can assume that a substantial effort has been made to document the facts, to tell a story rather than opine about it, to ask the tough questions and fairly report the answers. Moreover, when it comes to news, the evening news still tends to be guided by the morning paper. If the latter declines in quality, so will the former.

Of course, some television and radio reporters try to live by these standards, as do some bloggers. The problem is that the most-watched programs on television, the reporters who make the most money and the sites that get the most hits are not necessarily the best journalistically.

In all the years I've done television, I can count the number of times someone has complimented me for what I said. People watch TV; they don't listen to it. If you do well, they'll tell you how good you looked, not how smart or knowledgeable you sounded. What's worse, when it comes to the substance, you get attention not for being well-informed and reasonable, but for being out there and outrageous, even if you know nothing about what you're talking about.

I want to be a political pundit, pretty young girls and boys tell me all the time. No, they don't want to actually do politics, study politics, learn the game. They just want to get paid to look good and give opinions. Lawyers barely out of law school, who have never argued a case in their life, decide to be legal commentators. And too many good reporters, looking for television slots and the paid speeches that come next and trying to dodge the pink slips that are everywhere, are aiming to play the same game. They may win, but the rest of us are losing.

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