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Lloyd Omdahl, Published March 30 2009

Omdahl: Our democracy will lose when newspapers decline

The crisis in the newspaper business came closer to home recently when two of North Dakota’s major dailies – The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald – added more staff cuts to the 12,000 jobs already lost in the newspaper industry over the past year.

Newspapers across the country have been retrenching as readership and revenue have declined. Some have gone into bankruptcy; some have cut bureaus in national and state capitals; others have been squeezing payrolls and expenses. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver just up and died. More will follow.

According to a Pew Research poll, 66 percent of the people now rank television first for their news, outdistancing newspapers with 41 percent. The Internet is the major source for 31 percent and is gaining ground every day.

There aren’t any rainbows in sight. While 51 percent of folks age 65 and older would miss their local newspapers “a lot,” only 23 percent of the 18- to 39-year-olds feel that way. According to the Pew poll, if newspapers folded, only half of the younger people would mourn the loss.

The decline of newspapers will result in the dumbing down of the citizenry at a time when public issues are more complex than ever before. Print journalists are objective professionals who strive to provide the public with a stream of reliable information, a significant contrast to television, radio and the Internet.

Television is an entertainment medium and it treats news as entertainment. To meet the entertainment expectation, television news must be visual, heavy on glitzy graphics and light on facts. Important news that can’t be framed visually is discarded in favor of some spectacular but less significant event. A circus elephant can upstage a committee meeting every day of the week.

Fox and CNN – the so-called “news” channels – do little to enlighten the citizenry on critical issues. Neither one can leave a story until it has been dissected with the most meaningless questions and suppositions imaginable. The deliberate reporting of print journalism is absent.

Then there’s the Internet. While invaluable for research, the Internet has become the most unreliable source of information of all media.

In the first place, purveyors of information on the Internet have an agenda, often unknown to gullible surfers. Secondly, they are not accountable to anyone for distortions and misinformation. Thirdly, there are no means available to correct misinformation once dumped into the public domain. The medium has a license to pollute the public mind.

The decline of newspapers is a greater tragedy for the citizenry than for the publishing industry because the infrastructure of democracy is a flow of trustworthy information for intelligent decision-making. A democracy cannot afford to depend on media that generate panic in the streets and stampede decision-makers in Washington, as occurred in the AIG bonus brouhaha.


Omdahl is former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com