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Bloodletting in the other great democracy

Before i tell youhowbadthe situation is (for those who don’t already know), why should we care what happens in the US? Well, the US is still the world’s most powerful country, economically and militarily.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 16:11 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

Before i tell youhowbadthe situation is (for those who don’t already know), why should we care what happens in the US? Well, the US is still the world’s most powerful country, economically and militarily.

What happens there should concern everyone. The weaker its fourth estate, theweaker its democracy.However imperfect the media in theUS(askNoam Chomsky), its newspapers do help limit the misuse of power by the government and corporate sector.

Second, although India’s situation is very different, what happens in the US gives us some perspective about our own newspaper industry and where it could be heading. Our mind-boggling multi-lingual culture and low literacy levels are two obvious features that make us different from the US.

The first feature fragments the base of newspaper readers and the second means there still are a lot of potential readers out there.

But some of the pressures, such as readers moving increasingly to the Internet for news, are common, if to a different degree.

Why am I writing about the US now?

As we now get ready for another general election, I findmyself wearingmyreader’s hatmore often than before. Iamgrateful for well-researched articles and insightful commentary about candidates, political parties and their agendas. I would value more of this, not less.

Now to the carnage in the US. In February, Time’s former managing editor Walter Isaacson wrote in an article titled ‘How to save your newspaper’, “During the past few months, the crisis in journalism has reached crisis proportions.

It is now possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns will no longer have a newspaper and whenmagazines and network news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters.”

In another article in The Nation last month, titled ‘The death and life of great American newspapers,’ John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney described the devastation: “The country’s great regional dailies—the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer — are in bankruptcy. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News recently closed down, ending daily newspaper competition in that city. The owners of the San Francisco Chronicle, reportedly losing $1 million a week, are threatening to shutter the paper, leaving a major city without a major daily newspaper…”

This, they say is “a crisis that could leave a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake.” One solution,whichmany newspapers have been attempting, is to move their operations on to the Web. But the economics of theWeb are very different from a newspaper’s.

In another article about the New York Times’woes, ‘End Times’ in the January-February issue of The Atlantic,Michael Hirschorn explained the difference.

“Those 1 million print readers [of the NYT], who pay actual cash money for the privilege of consuming the paper, and who are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, are far more profitable than the 20 million unique Web users, who don’t and aren’t,” he wrote. “Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity.

He went on to say that “For now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of welldeveloped sourcing and reporting experience— not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.”

Is there any lesson in all this for all of us, readers and media professionals? Are there solutions to the US crisis? I’ll talk about this in coming weeks.