Are Newspapers on the Ropes?

03/07/2015 08:35 am ET | Updated May 07, 2015

There is no question about it: most newspapers in the United States are on the ropes. They are not yet down and out, but they are close to that knockout blow. I know this, as most of you readers do, from personal experience. Newspapers are downsizing in size and quality of paper, merging with or selling out to other newspapers or newspaper chains, printing regional editions, laying off journalists and support staff, doing away with proofreaders and newsroom editors, or simply closing their doors, selling their property to real estate developers or declaring bankruptcy. The picture is pretty bleak. And international statistics indicate the same development in most countries that allow freedom of the press.

Although being on the ropes is close to being down and out, there have been many times in championship struggles that the entity on the ropes is able to surprise everyone and rebound for a victory. I believe that this is possible for today's newspapers. Newspapers have played a very significant role in the history of the United States of America, and freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Certainly every effort needs to be exerted to save our newspapers "because," as Robert G. Kaiser wrote in an essay for the Brookings Institution, "Journalism is the craft that provides the lifeblood of a free, democratic society."

"The Founding Fathers knew this," continued Kaiser. He pointed out that "James Madison, author of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press, summarized the proposition succinctly: 'The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.' Thomas Jefferson explained . . . 'The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.' American journalists cherish another of Jefferson's remarks: '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.' "

In The Yale Law Journal, Michael W. McConnell writes: "The Free Press Clause protects the right of individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas, and opinions without interference, constraint or prosecution by the government." ("Reconsidering Citizens United as a Press Clause Case," November 2, 2013, pages 266-529)

Charles Evans Hughes, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1930 to June 1941, defined "press" as "every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion." (Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938), at 452)

According to Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, this right has been extended to media including newspapers, books, plays, movies, and video games. ("Justices Reject Ban on Violent Video Games for Children," New York Times, June 27, 2011)

The Brookings Institution, founded in 1916 by Robert S. Brookings and other government reformers, was the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy issues. Now, in its ninety-ninth year, Brookings Institution is committed to high-quality, independent research in the broad fields of economics, government administration, and the political and social sciences. According to its Web site, Brookings writes that it "is proud to be consistently ranked as the most influential, most quoted and most trusted think tank." I do not know that to be a fact, but I do know Brookings is highly respected, and I rely on Brookings for much research information.

The Brookings essay quoted earlier, rightly traces the decline of the newspaper industry, a decline I have also found from other resources. But the Brookings essay is accurate in its layout of broad details: referring to the printing press, it was "the engine of American democracy for more than two centuries. But then, in the second half of the 20th century, new technologies began to undermine long-established means of sharing information. First television and then the computer and the Internet transformed the way people got their news. Nonetheless, even at the end of the century, the business of providing news and analysis was still a profitable enough undertaking that it could support large organizations of professional reporters and editors in print and broadcast media.

"Now, however, in the first years of the 21st century, accelerating technological transformation has undermined the business models that kept American news media afloat, raising the possibility that the great institutions on which we have depended for news of the world around us may not survive."

The essay continues with some very sobering statistics. "Only about a third of Americans under 35 look at a newspaper even once a week, and the percentage declines every year. A large portion of today's readers of the few remaining good newspapers are much closer to the grave than to high school. . . . Audience taste seems to be changing, with the result that among young people particularly there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided, which included national, foreign and local news, business news, cultural news and criticism, editorials and opinion columns, sports and obituaries, lifestyle features, and science news."

Turning to another source, in Politicususa, Real Liberal Politics, on December 31, 2104, Bill Day, wrote: "Experienced journalists are being laid off and replaced with inexperienced journalists to save money."

Day continued: "Filling the void of these lost professionals are slanderous and unethical bloggers with agendas and no journalistic education. Without being vetted, they are often employed as freelancers by newspapers and are used as reliable journalists. It is common that these bloggers never bother to contact the person they are writing about, have no proof, and have no second or third sources, a mandatory journalistic practice. They just make things up, and when it hits the internet, it goes on record as fact. . . . Make no mistake, there are many journalists, bloggers, and editors who maintain a high standard of journalistic professionalism."

In my opinion, lack of interest in finding out the details of what is going on nationally and internationally mirrors what I refer to as "the dumbing down of America." This is the age of instant gratification--I want whatever I want ASAP. I don't want to work at finding the details. I don't care about quality reporting. Just give me a few details that I can run with. I want things to be easy and quick.

But it doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be that way. The USA has some of the most ingenious and imagination minds in the world, and we have the ability to lick this situation. The best and most dedicated newsprint professionals, owners and managing editors, imaginative problem solvers from other areas of the private sector, labor leaders, and appropriate people from the government can and should work together in coming up with a viable plan to save the newsprint industry. They should forget about grandstanding for their respective audiences and just get the job done--before it's too late.

I have every reason to believe that the newsprint industry can get off the ropes and win this battle. We need to be careful not to sacrifice the future for the present. We need to preserve one of the basic aspects of any democratic society--the free press.