It was a week that began with the management of The New York Times forcing
out the paper’s executive editor after just three years. A few days
later, exhibiting what can only be called eccentric news judgment, page
one of The Washington Post featured one story on trendy
restaurants for upscale Washingtonians and another on teenage rodeos in
Maryland. Dull items like Ukraine and Syria and kidnapped Nigerian
schoolgirls were nowhere in sight.
Think that things have gotten
kind of weird in the news business lately? You’re absolutely right. In
the old media especiallynewspapers and magazines, that issigns abound
of continuing decline, growing angst, and a nervous scramble to reach
out to new audiences or at least hang on to the dwindling audiences
they’ve still got.
Browsing in the Columbia Journalism Review,
you find a writer referring casually, as if speaking of a fait
accompli, to “the collapse of the newspaper industry.” To which, of
course, one familiar response is: “So what? Take a look at the
Internetthere are as many news sites out there as any sane person could
want. And many of them are generated by old news media making their
move into the digital era.”
That’s all very well, but it ignores a
crucial point. Covering the news is a labor-intensive enterprise, and
the number of media actually attempting to do itespecially in the
national and international sectorshas always been comparatively small
and is getting smaller all the time. Newsrooms have shrunk. Foreign and
domestic bureaus have closed right and left as an economy measure. In
the news business now, fewer and fewer are trying to do more and more
with less and less.
As for news on the Internet, it’s largely the
province of aggregatorssites featuring links to coverage provided by
those who still hang in there doing original workalong with a
wilderness of bloggers who opinionate on the news but don’t cover it.
situation in secular media is mirrored in religious media. Many
diocesan weeklies have shut down, switched to biweekly or monthly, or
else transitioned to the Internet. Many magazines similarly have
disappeared or also moved onto the web. Blogs and bloggers have
multiplied. By no means is this all for the worse, but who’d care to say
it’s all for the best?
Speaking at meeting in Rome,
Helen Osman, the top communication official of the U.S. bishops’
conference, says that “to understand the culture of the United States
and how the Church can present the faith within that culture, it is
important to realize that the adoption of digital communications is
fundamentally changing the culture.” Quite so. In the end, moreover, it
doesn’t matter greatly whether people get their news on a printed page
or a screen. But it does matter that they get itand that it be timely,
accurate, honest, and fair. Religious leaders, just like other leaders
in society, need to worry about that.
It’s often said that the
proliferation of news-related sites on the Internet means people have
plenty of news sources at their disposal and can fend for themselves.
But the ugly reality is that many, instead of digging for the truth of
things, settle cheerfully for the version of eventsand the sitethat
tickles their particular bias. The old news media had lots of faults,
but at their best they made an honorable effort to get the facts and
tell the story straight. However you look at it, their decline is very