"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." -- Thomas Jefferson
There was a time when newspapers were the very foundation of a democracy and reality TV shows were for mindless entertainment.
Newspapers were the way that the public remained informed about what the government was doing so that they could vote intelligently.
Reality shows were for... well... not for informing the public. Although more people voted for American Idol in the finals than in the 2008 presidential election.
But today the newspaper business is in rapid decline, with no relief in sight. Earlier this week, the Financial Times, one of the best newspapers in the country, if not the world, announced that it was henceforth going to an 'all digital' strategy. They ascribed this to 'cost pressures.' The Newark Star Ledger, the leading newspaper in New Jersey announced the week before that they were going to engage in yet another round of newsroom layoffs, firing 10 percent of their reporting and editorial staff. This, less than a month after the New York Times made a similar announcement about newsroom layoffs and more cuts to come.
Clearly, newspapers are in trouble. Really serious trouble.
The core of the problem is that people just don't read newspapers anymore.
According to Pew Research Center, only 23 percent of Americans still read print newspapers.
What Americans love to do, however, is watch TV. In 2009, the average American clocked in at five hours of TV viewing a day. (And it's not the local news!)
And what they really love are reality shows.
What is a sinking newspaper to do in a world in which the vast majorty of people no longer really care about the news or what happens in the 'real' world. ("Boring!")
The clever folks at NBC Entertainment seem to have come up with a solution.
They are right now auditioning for "a reality series about a small-town newspaper."
And more than 70 newspapers have already answered the call, according to Jim Romanesko.
Reality news... well, it's an interesting concept. News, after all, is probably the ultimate 'reality show.' I mean, it really happend, didn't it?
The problem is making local news interesting for an audience that has been fed an endless diet of two-headed girls, 800 pound men, Who's Your Daddy?, and fist fishing for catfish. Compared to that, the local town council meeting or the sewer bond issue are not exactly what I would call 'must see TV.' As we have grown up on a diet of junk food that makes us obese, we are also consuming a diet of junk content that is also making us fat in the head. And local newspapers are the broccoli of the media world.
What to do?
If NBC really wants this to be a success, let me suggest that they go after the local paper in Cabot Cove, Maine. That's the home of mystery writer Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Landsbury and the location for the fictional program Murder She Wrote). It ran for 12 seasons, from 1984-1996, and was very highly rated, with more than 23 million viewers at its peak. The New York Times, by contrast, has a circuation of 1.6 million. With 13 shows per season, that would mean a total of 143 shows. Despite the town's total population of 3,500, nearly 7 percent of the population was murdered. If that happened in New York, that would mean nearly 600,000 killings. (That would probably increase the readership of The NY Post).
But real life and reality shows are not the same thing -- fortunately. Although as our world becomes increasingly dominated by what is essentially fiction, we may begin to lose the ability to tell the difference.
Or maybe we already have.
Would you rather have a government without reality TV, or reality TV without a government?