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I've been uneasy about the direction the printed press has taken for a long time. I've spoken in these commentaries about the difficulties our newspapers face: declining circulation and the consequent reduction of advertising revenue have forced the closing of many papers, and money-saving reductions on personnel and services in almost all, including the journalistic giants like the New York Times and The Washington Post.
My kids were ahead of me. I couldn't understand why they had canceled their newspaper and magazines subscriptions, and were relying on the Internet to keep up with news and events. I was troubled by the experience of my journalist son who after 23 years as a political writer took a buyout from the Norfolk Virginian Pilot. I'm pleased that he's now reemployed as editor of PolitiFact at the Richmond Times Dispatch.
An excellent cover story in the current issue of the Economist examines the phenomenon in an article titled "Back to the Coffee House." They argue that the Internet is taking the news industry back to the conversational culture of the era before the advent of the mass media. It used to be, the article says, that news traveled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in coffeehouses and taverns. Well, that changed with the introduction of the mass audience newspapers in 1833, and radio and television news with a relatively small number of firms controlling the media.
The Economist goes on to say that the Internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse, and partisan. What with mobile, Twitter, and social networking sites, people are compiling, sharing, discussing, and distributing news with their friends. The effects worldwide are apparent.
The uprisings in the Middle East could not have taken place without cell phones and the Internet. In our country, almost all political leaders, from the president on down, are using blogs and the social networks to gain support to raise money and to advance their agendas. Many observers credit the use of these new forms of communication for President Obama's victory in the last election. You could be sure that all the other candidates recognize the value now, and will be devoting increasing resources to their use in the upcoming election battles.
We could have guessed that these changes have taken place more rapidly in the richer nations. Some of the poorer countries are seeing circulation of newspapers actually up. We can expect though, as is the case with most developments, they'll quickly spread to the poorer countries, and the rest of the nations as well. The worldwide uproar following disclosures of some of the practices of Rupert Murdoch's publications will accelerate this trend. If you value participatory democracy, you should be applauding that.