Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Full Court Press

A seismic shift occurred this week, and since it made international news it's hardly news. But it is about the news, and it is about the city about which I've written for twenty-one years, the setting of eleven of my novels and so I write about it again.

Since I'm not a reporter I'm not going to look up my facts. (I'm in far western China on a trip this week where I can't fact check, apologies. This should tell you something about blogs, including this one: you can't trust the information! Newspapers check their facts; blogs often do not.) You might want to double-check them yourselves.

Seattle's Post-Intelligencer stopped its print edition this week. For the environmentalists, who appreciate less paper being used, this might be cause for celebration. For the rest of us, followed on the heels of the last edition of the Rocky Mountain News, it should be seen as close to the final nail in the coffin. Small newspapers are dead, having suffered something like a decade of serious illness and several decades of decline. The PI, as it's known, will remain an on-line news source, but (here come the suspect facts) I believe the workforce shrank from 130 to 20. Twenty people to cover a major city's news, international news, weather, arts, etc. I'm not sure that can be done. I've written about crime in Seattle for a while now, and I would guess that beat alone would require three to four full time reporters to have anything close to decent coverage. Federal crimes and trials are as big, and as important in Seattle as city crimes -- and before you write telling me that the Seattle Times is still operating -- yes, you're right, and the Times does a great job. But a voice is a voice and the PI's voice is going all but silent.

What does it mean? For a hundred or so people (fact check) it means unemployment or early retirement. For the city it means a single voice where there were two. For the industry it may signal something about two paper towns. But for freedom of speech it could be more like the lead lining in the Roman aqueducts. Many of my friends and fellow writers either started in journalism or still write there. They've been telling me "it's all but over" for years now; and they would know. But we must be careful as a society that, as the access to information becomes so wide-spread, instant and ubiquitous, the source of that information does not become singular. The news information system is beginning to look like inverted funnel: small where it starts and large where it lets out. For our freedoms to remain intact we need just the opposite.

This development might not seem so grave if it didn't fall on the heels of eight years of controlled and manipulated information from the highest levels of government. But that alone should spark a nerve in all of us. We were cajoled as a people; we were lied to -- nothing less than that. Rights were denied repeatedly. Living in China you get a feel for what a controlled press is like. We get a lot of information here that surprises me -- internally critical information that I did not expect. But it's still from a single source, and carefully watched source. You feel this as a reader. I appreciate so much about this wonderful country (China), but may we never let this particular aspect of top down control of information reach our shores. It is painfully lacking.

The PI's demise is a minor flick in the economy, I suppose. But from across the ocean, it has sounded loudly.

PS: my friend, and fellow Naked Author, Paul Levine, has a new novel just out: Illegal. You can count on Paul to deliver a taut, fast read with credible and quirky characters. You can't miss, I promise. Go out and buy a copy--just look at his picture: Paul needs the money for a new haircut.


  1. The funnel analogy is a good point. There's a lot of talk that we're getting instant news from bloggers, etc., but what we seem to get is tons of commentary based on one or two sources (sometimes of dubious veracity).

    What I hope we'll see--aside from newspapers working out mini-click pay for website content--are reporters working in major urban/news areas that actually act as reporters and go out and get stories in their area. It'll probably be somewhat unedited, but hopefully it'll act to widen the funnel and have reliable reporting.

  2. It is hard not to weep over the demise of newspapers. I must be one of the last people in the country to have five papers home-delivered (it was 6 until I stopped the L.A. Daily News). But we need to embrace the new technology and demand that it applies sound journalistic standards as it evolves.

    As for the haircut, James W. Hall has offered a free one....if I end up bald like him.

  3. Ridley, I lived in Seattle for 13 years and was shocked to learn of the PI's demise. I'm also concerned by the loss of investigative journalists who serve as watch-dogs over our constitution.

  4. For years, the Sunday paper had been a collaboration of the RMN and the Denver Post. I'm not sure if people didn't realize that was a bad sign for one of the papers, or if they simply thought it was easier for the papers.

    The day the final issue of the Rocky Mountain News came out people bought it as quickly as they could, and the papers were left to sell all through the weekend. Those last few papers sitting there Sunday afternoon were a sad sight...

  5. Hate to see any of he papers go down. Tribune is really tightening up.


  6. The LA Times is a mere shadow of its former self.