Harriet Lloyd: News Not Fit to Print or Newsmakers Not Fit to Cover?
Amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth, national and local newspapers bemoan dwindling readership and diminishing profits, with many closing their doors, unable to make ends meet. While the demise of the Fourth Estate is a shame, it is hardly a shocker. When a business consistently misdirects its marketing, it must expect to pay dire consequences. While most businesses would rapidly move to staunch financial bleeding by changing strategy, such appears not to be the case among Rhode Island’s print and television media.
Here, newspapers are losing their fight for survival for a reason that is fairly simple to objective observers. Citizens seeking high-quality, unbiased information, as well as thorough coverage of important events, no longer expect to find it in Rhode Island’s newspapers or network programming. Instead, our media is saturated with third-grade level, tabloid-type material, “lightweight” news often gleaned from syndicated sources. Replete with bald-faced political propaganda, inarticulate reporting and an abundance of advertising, Rhode Island’s media have buckled under to political pressure and pandered to society’s lowest denominator — and then have blamed their lack of popularity on the Internet.
While the Web is a force with which newspapers must now reckon, Americans still enjoy news in hard copy; many would maintain subscriptions merely for convenience if they found the contents worthy. Disgusted and hungry for real information, they are forced to turn to the Internet and radio for the “down and dirty.” No matter what political stripe, age, race, or religious affiliation, people in increasing numbers are turning away from their newspapers, finding them less and less relevant and reliable. The trust is gone.
Take a recent example from Newport. Governor Carcieri, General Treasurer Frank Caprio, Department of Administration Director Gary Sasse, and Bill Murphy of the East Providence Taxpayers Association addressed a ballroom packed with taxpayers concerned about the state’s financial crisis. With them were twenty state senators and representatives, as well as mayors of the state’s major cities and towns. Sponsored by a non-partisan group, the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, the free Saturday morning forum at the Newport Hyatt Regency was broadly advertised to the media; press releases were circulated repeatedly in the weeks prior to the event. News personnel would have had to be living under a granite boulder not to have been aware of it.
As a capacity crowd of over 250 Rhode Islanders embraced the opportunity to interact with their government leaders and to make their voices heard, not one newspaper reporter attended — not even those most local. For more than two hours, one could have heard a pin drop as Rhode Island leaders — Democrats, Independents and Republicans — spoke candidly about their concerns, frustrations and the steps being taken to address our most serious economic challenges. Among their concerns was incomplete and inaccurate reporting. Following their remarks, they entertained questions and comments from citizens in a rare, intimate discussion. Democracy was at its finest that morning, but no stories appeared in newspapers. Among the television news stations, only Channel 12 was present; all other television news programs were conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, the only place to find a full, accurate recording of the morning’s events is on Web sites, as the event was streamed live and videotaped.
The irony was obvious to all in attendance: Rhode Island’s media market was alive and well in the Hyatt ballroom that morning; where was the media? Present were citizens who were interested, informed, and educated about the crucial issues facing the state. These were the very people most likely to read newspapers, contribute letters and opinion columns, and tune in to high-quality news programming. They were the individuals most likely to influence and finance media consumption in Rhode Island. They were voters, business owners, the unemployed, college students, school board members, town councilors, young couples, and retirees. Once again, they were disregarded by their state and local news people.
Is it any wonder that online news sources, e-newsletters and radio programs are replacing newspapers? Sadly, traditional media simply doesn’t get it: there exists a considerable market for literate, fair, and thorough journalism. Media leaders can whine about the Internet, but if they will not provide news of substance and quality, Rhode Islanders surely will find it elsewhere.
Harriet Lloyd is Vice President and Secretary of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition.