The NEWS with Tim O'Callaghan

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

A world without newspapers will be dumber

This first published March 26, 2009 in the Henderson Home News website, a Community Newspapers of Nevada publication.


While newspapers across the country shutter their newsrooms and empty the ink from their presses, there is a good deal of sadness surrounding the historic change in how Americans get their news.

There appears to be a hero in the U.S. Senate who has proposed legislation to bail out newspapers, sort of.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., has introduced a bill that would allow newspapers to choose tax-exempt status. The bill would allow newspapers to request 501(c)3 status. However, this status would prevent newspapers from endorsing political candidates.

That, my friends, is risky business, the first swing of the axe at the foundation of the First Amendment, in my view. That makes the Newspaper Revitalization Act a dangerous compromise to the First Amendment.

But the alternative concerns me. The newspaper industry as it exists is in grave danger, and there are deeper concerns to think about when considering the elimination of the printed word.

The closing of newspapers may lead to the dumbing down of America even further than has occurred.

As I contemplate a nation without newspapers, I can’t help but think about the most ridiculous movie I have ever watched. The 2006 film “Idiocracy,” directed by Mike Judge, is surely one of the dumbest movies ever made, yet it has some serious undertones.

The story is about Private Joe Bauer, an average, underachieving Army librarian who is selected to participate in a secret military experiment “Human Hibernation Project.” He and a prostitute named Rita are placed in a state of hibernation for what is supposed to be one year. The man in charge of the project is arrested, however, leaving the pair suspended in time for 500 years.

When they are accidentally awakened in 2505, they discover the nation is in shambles, run by illiterate couch potatoes. The average Joe finds himself to be the smartest man in the world.

Surely this is far-fetched and unlikely, right? But it’s where my mind takes me when I think of a nation without newspapers.

Perhaps, it will only lead to a world that is more “back to the future,” where an educated elite is granted all of the rights.

Obviously, I’m not a prophet and I don’t have a clue to the future. However, the movie provides me a vision of an exaggerated concern I have with people relying on the Internet as an accurate news source.

Day in and day out, friends and family have sent me e-mails they received about whatever you can imagine. Most of what they were reading was untrue, yet it looked authentic, with dozens of attributions.

It got to the point where I was sending them back the e-mails, telling them what a disservice it was to forward the inaccuracies.

Today, they send me inquiries of whether something is true or not so I can check the facts for them, then reply.

The case I make for newspapers is that most good newspapers have fact checkers and editors to keep information accurate. However, no one is perfect and mistakes are made. Therefore, in reliable papers, there is a corrections box on page 2 or 3. This is to correct the record for history, whereas in cyberspace, once it’s out, it is almost impossible to retrieve or correct.

Here is a reality check for those of you who are giving up your newspaper for news from the Internet for free! There are no free lunches, at least in the long term.

The Internet news model doesn’t work like the dinosaur newspaper model. In other words, the price point that Internet companies receive for advertising is less than what newspapers charge, creating a revenue problem or lack of revenue to pay for expenses, such as fact checkers, editors and reporters.

My point is that while the Internet provides a buffet of news sources for the small price of Internet access today, it won’t be so tomorrow. Quality news organizations will become coveted, pushing the market to an all-paid model.

You will have to pay for your news in one form or another. Perhaps, your Internet provider will charge you a news surcharge, which it will pay to subscribe to a quality news source.

Sadly, the truth isn’t free, leaving the question of who is willing to pay for accurate news and how much are they willing to pay?

Large newspaper Web sites will be forced to charge subscription fees in order to become profitable. That’s no different from your daily newspaper, except the subscription fee will be used for direct operations rather than to offset delivery cost.

As I struggle to hold onto my parents’ dream of providing quality community news on paper, the rest of the world is looking at the day when all of your news will be free on the Internet.

That’s what keeps the ember glowing in my heart, because I know newspapers will stick around in one form or another without compromising our First Amendment rights.

If left unbridled, the Internet could lead to illiteracy or, worse, a grossly misinformed public. As the gates of the Fourth Estate become blurred, information seekers will have a difficult time determining news from fiction. This would open the door wider for fiction to become history, if left unchecked.

There is some irony here in that this column will probably not be printed in the paper. This column will forever float in cyberspace on dozens of servers around the world, where my grandchildren will be able to find it with ease and read it for a few bucks.

Tim O’Callaghan, co-publisher of the Home News, can be reached at 990-2656 or tim.oc@vegas.com. He writes a regular column for the Home News.