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The Post-Gutenberg, Post-Truth Era

The Pew Research Center has released its annual assessment of the state of the news media, and it should come as a surprise to no one that it finds the news business in sorry shape.
Newspaper circulation is down to the lowest level since 1940, which was when they started keeping track and there were 200 million fewer people in America, and naturally revenues are also falling. Viewership of local television newscasts and the over-the-air network broadcasts are also down, although revenues have somehow improved. Cable news viewership and revenue rose, but only slightly.
There’s no reason to expect any improvement in the near future, as by now the decline seems self-perpetuating and accelerating. Lower revenues lead to smaller newsrooms putting together less news, usually at a steeper subscription price, which in turn leads to further declines in readership and more layoffs and even less news. There are already large American cities such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham that have no major newspapers at all, and we expect there will be more of them in the next few years.
Those who regard the media as enemies of the people might be pleased to hear it, but they should be careful what they wish for. With no one keeping a close eye on your city hall and county building and state capitol the people inside will probably be more tempted by whatever corrupt bargains come their way, and you won’t be able to object to their dumbest decisions until after they’re a done deal. You’ll cast your votes to replace the bums without knowing much about who you’re putting in. Like it or not, you need the news, and you’ll miss it when it’s not around.
Go ahead and say the news media is in decline because of its dishonest “fake news” ways, and figure you can get your information straight from President Donald Trump’s “twitter” feed, but that’s bunk. Most people who go into journalism are left-leaning, to be sure, and that sometimes affects their reporting in infuriating ways, but they very rarely just make things up, are usually quickly caught by their colleagues when they do, and an astute reader can discern the double-sourced facts according to their own bias. In most cases, it’s more reliable than Trump’s “tweets.” The rapid decline in journalism’s fortunes, we believe, mostly isn’t the journalists’ fault.
Way back in the Gutenberg era when we broke into the newspaper racket as college dropout copy boys, newspapers were thick and cost a mere 25 cents, and it was a grand and essential bargain at that price. Your daily newspaper was the only way to know where your favorite baseball team was in the standings, how that hot stock pick you bought into fared on the markets, what the weekly weather forecast was forecasting, and there was “Peanuts” and “Blondie” and crossword puzzles and coupons worth well more than 25 cents. Newspapers were black and white and read all over, even by those apolitical types who don’t much care what’s going on at City Hall or in Washington, D.C., although they’d occasional read the stories as well.
This infernal internet machine changed all that, for both better and worse. It provides access to The Wall Street Journal and New York Times and Washington Post and a wide variety of publications closest to whatever local story has become national news, and you can read well considered opinions worth considering from across the political spectrum, along with all sorts of far-right and far-left conspiracy theorizing that might just turn about to be true, but the marketplace is so widely dispersed that profits are hard to come by for even the best of the news providers. There will always be a certain demand to know what’s going on, but it’s hard to build a business model on it.
We’ve also noticed there’s less demand to know what’s going on in the big, wide world. People seem more interested in what’s on their text messages and the Facebook pages they’re constantly looking at on their hand-held mesmerizers, and care less than ever about what’s going at city hall or the county building or in Washington, D.C.  Even talk radio is seeing a decline in ratings, and Trump is fuming that that his “Twitter” following has been cut down by the period attempts to eliminate “bots.” Perhaps that has something to do with the rather dull prose and apparent biases of so many journalists, but it’s also a failure of America’s educational system and our self-absorbed culture, and the politicians who encourage cynicism about the very possibility of objective truth aren’t helping.
Keep your eye on the news, we urge, and don’t be such a cheapskate that you won’t pay an inflation-adjusted price to keep it going. Be skeptical about whatever you read, whether it’s in a newspaper or internet publication or a presidential “tweet.”

— Bud Norman

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Fake News and Real Life

Our Tuesday morning started before sunrise and stretched into the afternoon in the lobby of a local hospital, where we anxiously awaited the outcome of our father’s spinal surgery. The rest of the day’s news seemed unimportant, but while our mother was getting some much-needed napping done there was nothing else but pacing to occupy our interminable wait.
Once upon a fairly recent time in Wichita almost any significant medical procedure would take place at the Wesleyans’ Wesley Hospital or the Catholics’ St. Francis or St. Jude hospitals, which still remain the big three under national corporate ownership, but these days there are gleamingly ultra-modern specialty facilities spread all over town. We wound up way out on the east side, across the street from one of the local corporate airports and not far from swank restaurants in trendy shopping centers, at a well regarded place where they work pretty much exclusively on spines. The workers were friendly and professional, the coffee was free, and they had several of those big high-definition televisions tuned into the various cable news channels.
An old family friend and a new friend from the parents’ elegant nearby dropped by to offer some much-appreciated moral support, as did an elder from the parents’ church, and Mom got cell phone calls from our brothers in Colorado and California and a cousin in Oklahoma, but that only took up some of the time. The local newspaper doesn’t take up much time these days, even if you do the crossword and jumble and crypto-quip puzzles, and we’d forgotten to bring along the laptop to take advantage of the free wi-fi we should have expected at such an up-to-date facility, so when Mom dozed off we wandered over to see what was on those newfangled high-definition TVs.
One was tuned into Fox News while another just a yard or so away was showing MSNBC, and it was pleasantly diverting to watch the captions and the scrollers and see what the two polar ends of the cable spectrum were choosing to yak about. On “Fox and Friends” they were making a big deal of the black-masked “antifa” idiots who had staged some destructive May Day mini-riots in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco and Chicago and New York, while the folks at “Morning Joe” on MSNBC didn’t seem to get around to mentioning them at all, and in both cases we thought their news judgment was skewed by bias. When our Fox-watching folks showed up for the check-in they both mentioned they’d heard how that awful Michael Moore guy was going to stage an anti-Trump Broadway play, which was still big news an hour later on “Fox and Friends,” and we assured our parents that Moore’s pretty much a left-wing has-been these days and nothing to worry about it at a time like this, and they’ll be heartened to know that MSNBC seems to agree, as we didn’t spot a single picture of Moore’s jowly face during the hour so we spent glancing at “Morning Joe.”
The guy we assume is the titular “Morning Joe” and his comely sidekick Mika with the same foreign-sounding and hard-to-spell last name as a past National Security advisor were mostly interested in yakking about some interviews that President Donald Trump gave over the weekend. We could hardly deny them their fun, as the interviews were so undeniably disastrous that we’d already gotten our own kicks in from the right, and we couldn’t really criticize their critiques from the left. Even the exceedingly Trump-friendly panel on “Fox and Friends” was forced to address the unavoidable topic, and their guest, thetalk radio hostess Laura Ingraham, who is usually so Trump-friendly he seriously considered her for the job of Press Secretary, was forced to concede that the interviews “didn’t do Trump any good.” Fox’s regular panel of “Friends” tried to mount a defense, especially that pretty young woman that we have no idea who she is in the middle of the couch, but their hearts didn’t really seem in it.”
The handsomely aging guy on the left of the couch at “Fox and Friends” we recognized as Steve Doocy, and in our sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated and highly anxious yet profoundly bored state we recalled the couple of times our paths had briefly crossed on the Wichita media scene. He was a reporter for one of the local TV stations, we were clerking at the local newspaper, which was a whole lot thicker and more time-consuming and far better than TV way back then, and although he seemed a nice enough guy we couldn’t help but resent how all the women at the paper seemed slightly smitten by him, especially one that we happened to be smitten with. He seemed rather tongue-tied trying to defend those undeniably disastrous Trump interviews, and looked at least the same three years or so older than ourselves, and we couldn’t help chuckling about what all those left-wing babes at the paper would think of him now. We’re not at all famous and as plain and right-wing as ever, but our hair’s still full and we’re not obliged to muster a defense of those undeniably disastrous interviews.
After a few fitful moments of sleep in the chair next to Mom the newfangled beeper machine they’d given us went off, and then a very fit-looking and handsome young surgeon that our Mom told us had attended a Christian college came out to tell us that the surgery had gone well. We were advised that Dad would be waking up from the anesthesia in an about an hour, and after two and a half hours of fitful sleep and pacing and news-watching the beeper went off again and we were sent in to see him. He’d gone off to surgery far more calm and confident and ready to get it over with than anybody else, as usual, and he awoke from the ordeal his same mellow self. He was in intense pain and dreaming the dreams of Morpheus, but still lucid enough to inquire how his beloved wife and family and were doing, and offering reassurances while making some minor complaints, and all the news was good.
A while later he reassured us we could go home, and after we pressed him for more reassurance we somehow made our way back across town for a much-needed nap. We woke up to check the internet for the usual news feed, found nothing that seems especially pressing, took notice that The New York Yankees are back in first place in the American League East and The Boston Celtics are up two-to-none in the second round of the National Basketball Association playoffs, and at the end of it we gave thanks for a pretty good day. We’ll drop by the hospital way out on the east side tomorrow, where Dad’s going to be laid up for a days, and try to adjust our news judgment to what really matters.

— Bud Norman

The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman

An Inevitable Landslide or a Fixed Election

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s die-hard supporters are still taking to the internet comment sections and message boards as well as the call-in lines of right-wing talk radio programs to insist that he’s cruising to a landslide victory, but the nominee himself has lately been complaining that the election has already been rigged against him. What this portends for the actual outcome of the race is hard to tell, and in such a crazy election as this year anything seems possible, but all the oddsmakers are lately liking Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s chances.
The confidence of Trump’s supporters seems based largely on the undeniably sizable yet oft-overstated attendance at his rallies and the impossible-to-overstate enthusiasm of those crowds, the equally impossible-to-overstate awfulness of Clinton, a certain gnostic faith that their oh-so-secular messiah is destined to make America great again, and the fact that everyone they hang out agrees with them. Trump’s claims of a rigged election are harder to explain, as his numerous conspiracy theories tend to be, but it seems to have something to do with media collusion and voter fraud at certain precincts of some major metropolitans and some unspecified globalist cabal of big banks and other well-heeled specialist interests. Of the two, we’d say that Trump’s supporters are making the more convincing case.
Many of the media are indeed out to get Trump, of course, and especially those big-name ancien regime ink-on-paper and over-the-air organs that still wield enough influence that many people think they are “the media.” Those same institutions have been out to get every Republican candidate of our lifetime, we never expected they would make an exception even for such a recent Democrat as Trump, and one must admit that Trump presents an especially tempting and accommodating target, but the undeniable bias of much of the media doesn’t mean that an election has been rigged. Over our lifetime the Republicans have won eight presidential elections, and enough Senate and Houe and gubernatorial and statehouse and county commission and city council races that the Republican party was in its best shape since the ’20s going into this crazy election year, and much of that happened back when when the only conservative media were William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” show on public television and his National Review magazine and a few big city papers with conservative readerships. There are plenty of other media these days, including internet message boards and radio talk shows full of people predicting a Trump landslide, and they all agree that nobody they hang out with believes to the “lamestream media.”
Even to the extent that those “lamestream” media are ganging up on Trump, there’s nothing really conspiratorial about it. After a quarter century of working for one of those big newspaper chains we’re sure that our erstwhile editors and publishers and corporate masters weren’t coordinating their coverage with the competition, but rather wound up with the same front pages because they’d all gone to the same schools and aspired to the same prizes and went to the same cocktail parties and eventually succumbed to the conclusion that everyone they hung out with though the same way, and it’s not so much a conspiracy that Trump needs to thwart as it is a market failure that the destructive powers of capitalism are already rapidly correcting. We’d also note that Buckley’s “National Review” and the staunchly conservative Weekly Standard and every last one of those big city papers with a conservative readership that have never of very rarely failed to endorse a Republican nominee are withholding their praise for Trump, and perhaps you can blame that one some big money cabal, but we can assure you that no checks have arrived for such staunchly conservative yet neutral publications as this. Should Trump win, and begin his promised purge of the conspirators, we’ll do our best to sneak out our grumblings through some sort of samizdat.
There’s also something to the charge that certain Democrats in certain precincts of certain big Democrat-controlled cities have been known to violating laws, and that the party at large has fiercely resisted such reasonable measures as voter roll examinations and photo identification requirements to thwart such efforts, but at this point any claims of a “rigged election” seem typical Trumpian overstatement. Each of the 50 states’ election process have federal, state, county, city, precinct, and neighborhood oversight, along with a bunch of local newspaper and television and radio and internet reporters hanging around next to paranoid members of both parties, and unless the results are so unusually close as they turned out to be in the ’00 race in Florida there’s rarely any argument about it. In such a crazy election year as this we can’t rule anything out, including Russian hackers intervening on Trump’s behalf, but we’ll wait until after election day to start spinning our conspiracy theories.
In the meantime the polls don’t look good for Trump, but his supporters insist all those polls are also rigged. That would mean that Fox News is in on the anti-Trump conspiracy, The Los Angeles Times isn’t, The Washington Post is only half-heartedly cooperating, and that pretty much every other polling firm is willing to sell its reputation for whatever handsome price that globalist cabal is paying, but in this crazy election year anything seems possible. Trump has his own polling, and in fact his pollster is his campaign manager, and we note that their recent cancellation of ad buys and campaign appearances in Virginia and a couple of other formerly contested states suggest that her numbers are pretty much in line with what all those biased media are reporting, and we can’t help thinking that might have something to do with his preemptive complaints about a rigged election.
Anything is possible in such a crazy election year as this, and that Clinton truly is awful, but that’s how it looks at this glum moment.

— Bud Norman

A House Divided Against Itself

These are the times that try a Republican’s soul. There’s still no telling how such a crazy election year as this will turn out, but at this late date in the process the polls aren’t hopeful for the presidential prospects of the Grand Old Party, and the intra-party fighting is already underway.
Republicans started this election cycle with solid if not-quite-veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, a number of Republican governors and state legislatures and county commissions and city councils not seen since the Roaring ’20s, not to mention a strong field of successful governors and legislators and business leaders vying for the presidential nomination, and were destined to face the most deservedly unpopular Democratic nominee of our lifetimes, but at this dire moment in this crazy election we seem to have blown it. The erstwhile party of family values and free market capitalism and keeping the international bad guys at bay chose to nominate a twice-divorced casino-and-strip-club mogul whose latest wife is an illegal immigrant nudie model, whose casinos and strip clubs have gone bankrupt and whose vodka brands and minor-league football teams and ill-timed mortgage companies and scam real estate schools have gone under, and who now insists he can force Apple to make its products in America and sell them for a hundred grand or so a pop, and seems to have a strange attraction to the Russkies’ suddenly revanchist dictator and insouciance toward other international bad guys.
Apparently much of his appeal to the plurality of the party who nominated him was his tough talk about taking it to those darned Republican politicians that the party had previously put into office in such formidable numbers, and yet failed to make America sufficiently great again, so it’s not surprising that as the nominee’s poll numbers are lately tanking as the result of latest predictable scandals the “establishment” he vowed to destroy is taking the opportunity to fight back. Speaker of that Republican-majority House Paul Ryan has announced that he’s no longer defending the party’s presidential nominee and is instead focused on retaining those Congressional and state and county and local majorities, four of the party’s last five presidential nominees are also withholding their support, 36 statewide and Congressional Republican office-holders have called on their nominee to step down, another ten have withdrawn their support but stop short of calling for his withdrawal, and another 18are  offering pointed criticism of the nominee’s recently revealed and widely-panned boasts about being able to grab random women by the whatever, among his other recent problems. Meanwhile the party’s big business wing is withholding contributions, such formerly definitive non-talk-radio conservative media as The National Review and The Weekly Standard and The Central Standard Times remain as critical of the nominee as ever, and even the most reliably conservative publications in the daily and monthly press are refusing for the first time in their history to offer a Republican endorsement, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson leading the Republican by five-to-zero among the nation’s top 50 circulation newspapers, and the poll numbers among the college-educatated suburban-dwelling sorts of Republicans, especially the distaff portion, are almost as horrible.
Which is likely to result that in that most deservedly unpopular Democrat nominee of our lifetimes becoming president, but as she might put it, what difference, at this point, does it make? At this particular moment in this crazy election year the more pertinent question is which faction of the party should survive the recriminations, and there’s no telling how that might play out.
Should Republican nominee Donald J. Trump somehow survive this moment and become president, we’ve no doubt he’ll be so awful that all those fancy-schmantzy establishment types and such less well-healed and well-credentialed NeverTrump folks as ourselves will be vindicated, for whatever slight consolation that might be worth. In the seemingly more likely event that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton becomes the most deservedly unpopular newly-inaugurated president ever we’re also sure that she’ll be so awful that Trump fans will be able to make an argument he couldn’t have possibly been worse, but there will still be an at least equally plausible argument that any other Republican name you might have picked out of a hat would have prevented that calamity, and at this glum point in this crazy election we expect to spend the next four years fighting that intra-party battle. We know which side we’ll be  on, at least, but we won’t relish the fight, and would much prefer to be fighting the Democrats as we would in a less crazy year.

— Bud Norman

The Medium is the Mess

We’ve lately been spending a lot of time with some fine people who work in what’s left of the local news media, preparing for our annual brief appearance on the amateur stage in the Society of Professional Journalists’ satirical song-and-skit “Gridiron” show, and although it’s been fun and a good reason to get out of the house we sometimes wonder what’s the point. The show is a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, after all, so we can’t shake a guilty feeling that we’re contributing the delinquency of a minor.
Better that those fresh-faced youngsters should be preparing for careers in horse-and-buggy engineering or telegraphy, as far as we’re concerned, and we’re apparently not the only ones who think so. A recent survey by something calling itself CareerCast just published its annual survey of the worst careers to pursue, and for the third year in a row being a newspaper reporter came in number one. Newspaper circulation has been plummeting rapidly, with advertising revenues falling even faster, the resulting salaries are also low, and by now the prestige factor is in negative territory.
Things were vastly different way back when our fresh faces embarked on a career in newspapering. We had recently dropped out of college, and after a series of desultory jobs were eager to accept an offer to be an “editorial clerk” at the local newspaper, which meant writing obituaries and listening to the police scanner and answering calls from irate readers and doing whatever menial errands almost anyone else in the newsroom might find for us, and it was grueling but fun and seemed to hold out some promise. Almost all the reporters were “J-school” graduates who had been inspired by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bringing down Tricky Dick in “All The President’s Men,” but we were drawn to profession by “His Girl Friday” and “Nothing Sacred” and all those black-and-white movies about men in fedoras shouting “get me re-write” into a candlestick phone, and we even managed to work our un-credentialed way to a “staff writer” by-line as the last of the up-from-copyboy reporters.
That was so long ago, though, that we were on the job the night Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. It was a grand old time in the journalism industry, when almost every city in the country was becoming a one-newspaper town, and it was before Reagan revoked the Fairness Doctrine and unleashed talk radio and then the internet and all its gloriously unedited commentary and more up-to-the-minute sports results and stock market quotes, and even worse Craig’s List and all the other on-line advertising options, so for a brief shining moment journalism was the monopolistic place to be. Our newspaper was basically printing money along with all its widely distributed daily editions, the raises kept coming along with every threat of unionization, the drama critic and fashion writer were getting annual paid trips to New York City, the political writers got their calls immediately returned from even such disdainful sorts as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, and even we were pretty cocky about it.
In retrospect, of course, we should have seen it coming. That night Reagan won the presidency we were the only ones in the newsroom who were glad of it, and we’re still owed twenty bucks from a reporter who bet us that the world surely would end in a nuclear conflagration within four years but who’d moved on by then, and we look back on their discredited crusades against nuclear energy and that “red-lining” nonsense that led to the subprime mortgage fiasco that led to the great recession of ’08, which somehow led to the disastrous Obama presidency with the unabashed cheerleading of our local newspaper, and even without the internet and other aspects of the creatively destructive nature of capitalism it was bound to end badly. Now the paper isn’t even printed here, but is for some reason or another outsourced to the now corporate-sister Kansas City paper, which used to be the paper that our local paper hated to be scooped by on any Kansas story, and what difference, at this point does it make?
Our friends in the radio media aren’t faring much better, with all those internet stations that play only the songs you want to hear stealing their audience, and the conservative talk radio hosts splitting into every smaller shares with every new schism in conservatism, the one of the only people we know from local television was fired for letting the “f-word” slip at the end of a broadcast and is now vying for a state House of Representative seat. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the people who decided to pursue a career in any sort of journalism, and for the city at large.
For all the windmills that our colleagues tilted at over our quarter-century of local journalism, they also pointed to some serious problems that were quickly addressed, and on other occasions they at least forewarned their readers of the problems to come. Our radio friends have warned of us upcoming tornadoes and traffic jams and tax hikes, and even that foul-mouth and quite likable TV reporter also brought us some valuable information, although we’ve told him we’re not supporting his out-of-our district campaign, and we hate to think of what our local officials might be up to without such watchful scrutiny.
Still, we hold out no hope that “J-schools” are going to do any good, given that they all still seem obsessed with inculcating Reagan-hated into their charges, and what with all the computerization in the dying newspaper business there aren’t any copy boys left to work their way up to “staff writer.” Which leaves us wondering how people will know what their public officials are up to and what problems need to be addressed and which problems can only be forewarned, and whether anyone will really care. We’d like to think that there is still a demand for such information and that a free market system will therefor provide a supply, but so far no one’s figured out how to make it profitable, and until then we’ll enjoy the company of our last remaining media friends and encourage those fresh-faced youngsters to into gerontology or video game-making or some other promising field.

— Bud Norman

The Shrinking Globe

Many years of toiling for newspapers have cured of us any sentimentality about the industry, but it was nonetheless sad to read that the once-venerable Boston Globe has been sold.
In yet another sign of the steady decline of newspapers, the publication went to the owner of the Boston Red Sox for a bargain-basement price of $70 million, which won’t even buy a good shortstop these days. That’s a 93 percent loss from what The New York Times paid for the property back in 1993, if you don’t take into account inflation and the $100 million of pension liabilities which the old owners will retain, and even a typically math-challenged journalist will recognize it as a rather poor rate of return on investment. The figures bode ill for the value of newspapers in less densely populated cities such as ours, but should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to recent trends.
Part of the problem is newfangled technologies such as the internet, of course, which have not only lured away readers but also provided formidable competition for classified advertising revenue. The inherent advantages of the internet as a news medium first became clear to us years ago when reading an on-line obituary for the great jazz singer Anita O’Day which featured a video of the chanteuse performing with Roy Eldridge and the Gene Krupa Orchestra, the sort of thing no newspaper can provide, and we are reminded every time we check the web for baseball standings that are freshly updated with the west coast scores. Selling an old lawn mower or seeking a clandestine sex romp on Craigslist is faster, easier, and less expensive than placing an ad in a local paper, and the big advertisers are able to target their pitches to a more specific market on a well-chosen web site. Without the much-vaunted layers of editors found at newspapers, who mostly serve to ensure a uniformity of polite opinion and bland prose, the internet also offers a greater diversity of opinion and far livelier writing.
Even the shrewdest publishers would be hard pressed to survive the modern era of communications, and today’s newspapers are not blessed with shrewd leadership. The money-drenched era that followed the monopolization of every town’s newspaper and preceded the age of the internet and talk radio inculcated a dangerous complacency in the nation’s editors and publishers, and they arrogantly refused to respond to the rapid changes taking place until they had left too far behind to ever catch up. Most of the people running today’s newspapers began their careers in the post-Watergate era when journalism was a prestigious profession and everyone was looking to be portrayed by Robert Redford in a movie about their speaking-truth-to-power exploits, and few of them have any practical business sense or empathy for their unwashed readerships. In our experience most newspaper workers would rather go broke with their rigid orthodoxy than to thrive by allowing an occasional alternative viewpoint to infiltrate their pages, and we note that the Times’ even passed up a more lucrative offer because the would-be buyers might nudge the Globe a few notches to the right.
If this sounds slightly embittered, so be it. Although the various news media are currently in a transitional stage that has left the public without crucial reporting we expect that someone will eventually devise a business model for the internet which will result in something far better, and we are pleased to see that the generally baleful influence of the American is on the decline. Still, we have some regrets about the demise of the newspaper, and not just because it means fewer freelance opportunities and causes some anxiety about our own pension. An untold number of local scandals are going unreported because of newsroom cutbacks at papers around the country, just as a number of national scandals go under-reported because they involve the wrong party, and we are old enough to remember a time when newspapers occasionally did some good.

— Bud Norman