Don't Read 'Em... and Weep

Kathleen Parker

1/2/2009 12:01:00 AM - Kathleen Parker

Let me be the first in the new year to declare that the mainstream media are dead.

Now, can we please move on?

Henceforth, my spam filter will bounce any e-mail that includes reference to the dying or dead mainstream media, or MSM, as the gleeful undertakers prefer.

It's over. Done. The old media are no more. We are all new media now. All journalists, we are also the news. We are essentially a nation of news-mongering newsies making news as we do the news. At some point, the news will simply consume the news consumer-slash-provider in a big bangish event that will go unreported.

In the meantime, could we give it a rest?

The mainstream media aren't really dead, of course. The industry has merely transmogrified, splintered into a billion little reflections of its former self. One-fifth of the world's nearly 7 billion people are now Web-capable -- all reporting, opining, interacting, twittering, digging and blogging.

Bloggers, bless their hearts, are becoming the new-old curmudgeons, thinking hard before writing, still insisting on complete sentences with more than 140 characters, clinging to their gerunds, participles and semicolons. Many are camouflaged renegades from (or appendages to) newspapers, not so much new breeds as Darwinian adapters to a new environment.

Watching newspapers tumble the past few years, and especially toward the end of last, when even the once-great Tribune Co. declared bankruptcy, has been painful to watch and more painful to experience. No city editor or beat reporter ever fantasized about the day he would surrender his press pass to write releases for the local hospital.

What fresh hell, indeed.

But most painful -- perhaps odd is a better word -- has been the celebration in some quarters.

Yes, we know: Journalists are held in low esteem, below lawyers and politicians. Some deserve it; most do not. In other oddities, we seem to reserve special hatred for the best papers -- the ones that do the expensive, labor-intensive reporting that keeps government in check and exposes corruption, sometimes even among their own kind.

Are papers sometimes wrong? Do some reporters embarrass the rest? Is bias a problem? Yes, yes and yes, of course. Journalists are not saints, but they do perform a valuable service for which the rewards are few. If you want friends or money, my first editor told me, get another line of work.

What, meanwhile, would twitterers and bloggers tweet and blog about if news organizations no longer provided them the meat on which most chew?

Which is not to say that twitterers and bloggers are not also valuable. They are. Twitterers reported live from Mumbai in real time. Bloggers often provide news and analysis from remote corners. The new media world is composed of multiple moving parts in a symbiotic, interactive relationship. The corner store where neighbors swapped gossip has become Times Square, always awake and buzzing with data.

Even so, only the old, maligned MSM provide the lion's share of information necessary to the government oversight vital to freedom.

Newspapers have been trying valiantly to adapt to hardships imposed by declining readership and depressed ad sales. Today, only four in 10 households subscribe to a daily newspaper, compared to a more than 100 percent household penetration in 1950. Most papers, their pages trimmed a money-saving 12-inch width, don't weigh enough to thump when they land.

One of the skinniest surely is The Oklahoman, a copy of which just landed on my desk. Only 11 inches wide, the paper is designed to be read in conjunction with the Internet. Which is to say, it doesn't bother readers much with text. If Tanya Twitter married Al Neuharth, their offspring would look like this: lots of photos, color, and refers elsewhere for those who really must read.

Thus have the old media become the new. They haven't gone to bed, but have merely joined the kids' party, trading up the old gas-guzzling Chrysler for a smaller, more efficient hybrid. Eventually -- some time around 2040, according to one prediction -- the last newspaper will thwap its last fly.

In the meantime, no matter the mode of transport, news organs will always need content and no one does that better than those people everyone likes to hate so much. Like nosy neighbors, the MSM are often annoying, but we'll miss them when they're gone.

When the world comes unplugged, someone still has to put oil in the lamps.