I taught a journalism class today. For almost two hours, my students and I talked about the importance of voice and perspective in column writing, and discussed how the digital era has so widened the literary platform that now almost anyone can be a published writer.
My students understand the importance of Internet news, mostly because they read blogs and online magazines, as most people do these days, but also because they grew up with social media. There are now more places to get news than ever before.
As a matter of fact, when I tried to find a regular newspaper for class, I drove to two bookstores, three gas stations and a supermarket before finally finding one at a local drugstore. I felt like an archeologist hunting for a pterodactyl tooth. The era of the almighty newspaper is over -- over, anyway, for those that have yet to figure out ways to adapt.
Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, an afternoon paper in Manchester, Conn., seems to be having trouble adapting. Instead of asking questions about why his newspaper's circulation is falling, and finding innovative ways to preserve his product for future generations, he's pointing his finger at single mothers.
I suppose that's the easier thing to do.
In an op-ed in his own paper, Powell said that even in relatively well-off Connecticut, children of single mothers are creating havoc with their "developmental handicaps."
He goes on to cite figures on illiteracy, poverty and voter apathy, as though there is a relationship between the rise in single-parent families, the degradation of society and his newspaper's shortcomings. He writes:
"Indeed, newspapers still can sell themselves to traditional households -- two-parent families involved with their children, schools, churches, sports, civic groups, and such. But newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they're living in, and couldn't afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read."
On Monday, after receiving media scrutiny, he doubled down, saying he wasn't blaming successful single parents for "social disintegration," just welfare queens.
I'm not sure which is more outdated: Mr. Powell's image of single mothers or his position that the only form of news that matters comes on black-and-white paper.
Here's the thing: food stamps are up because our working poor aren't earning enough money to feed themselves, and literacy rates haven't changed in 10 years. Yes, there are a lot of single mothers on welfare, but there are many more who aren't.
I am an unmarried mother, and I can read. Actually, I have a bachelor's degree in journalism, a master's degree in creative writing, and a professional certification to teach. I'm an adjunct professor at a university with a reputation for preparing students for what's really out there: an evolving field where stories that matter are told across mediums, in different places and in different ways.
After my class ended today, I picked up my daughter, who just turned seven, from school. We worked on her homework for about 20 minutes (she's literate too; she reads and writes beyond her grade level), and then we went to the park so she could ride her bike.
In the evening, we cooked dinner together (chicken with broccoli, which I bought with cash, not food stamps or welfare). We sat at the kitchen table and talked about the best and worst parts of our day.
The best part of her day was having art class. The best part of mine was coming home to her.
When I'm not working, I volunteer in my daughter's school. We visit our local library at least once a week. She is learning her address and her phone number, which haven't changed in three years. To say that single mothers are social delinquents dodging eviction is false. To say that they are illiterate, dishonest, unemployed and indifferent about what happens in their communities is a lie, a convenient lie, told by a person who is unwilling, or unable, to confront his real problems.
Mr. Powell can try, but he won't get away with blaming his business woes on others, least of all single mothers. If his paper's circulation figures are dropping (which they are, according to the Alliance for Audited Media), perhaps it's because he isn't giving readers what they want.
Americans get their news differently now. They listen to talk radio on their morning commutes, they read stories on their cellphones, and they watch cable news networks any hour of the day. If newspapers want to survive, they have to offer customers a product they can't get anyplace else -- and most newspapers aren't doing that.
What they are doing instead is cutting half the reporting staff, then asking the poor remaining souls to do twice as much for no extra pay. They cover the same old stuff in the same old way, and then wonder why young people aren't interested.
Daily journalism is still important. People (including single mothers) still want to know about tax rate increases, town meetings and plane crashes. That hasn't changed. What has changed is the delivery system. Curmudgeonly managing editors can pretend otherwise, if that's their choice. They can resist, make excuses, and toss blame onto those least likely to defend themselves. But if their best plan for reaching new readers is writing arrogant, misguided editorials, then they shouldn't be surprised when their newspapers go the way of the pterodactyl.