We Begin with an Anecdote

By RJI on May 26, 2009 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

In 1991, when newspapers made money and spent some of it sending reporters off on stories, one of those newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, sent one of its reporters, me, off on a story.

What and where was the story? Forgotten and irrelevant. What matters now is that for some reason the plane was delayed taking off from O’Hare. We were going to sit at the gate for a while.

In 1991, major airlines still treated their passengers sort of like human beings, so all the passengers were treated to a free drink.

I was in an aisle seat. The middle seat was empty (not so unusual back then), and there was a fellow roughly my age in the window seat. Like me, he wore a shirt and tie and had put his jacked in the overhead bin. Like me, he was reading. Like me, he accepted a drink. We ignored each other.

After about half an hour, one of the flight attendants took to the PA system to inform us that the delay would last a bit longer, in compensation for which we would get one more free drink. This time, when the stewardess brought the drinks, my neighbor and I started to chat. After a few minutes, he introduced himself. I can’t remember his name and wouldn’t repeat it if I could. But he recognized mine.

“Oh, of the Tribune?”

“Guilty,” I said.

“I just cancelled my subscription to the Tribune,” he said. “We’re just not going to get it delivered any more.”

After another sip of my drink, I asked why.

‘Because it doesn’t speak to me,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with my life. All this stuff about Russia. What does that have to do with me?”

As some may recall, 1991 was the year the Soviet Union fell apart. The Tribune had dispatched a second correspondent to the Moscow Bureau. There was a lot of news about Russia in the paper.

“Well,” I said,” there are at least two possibilities. One is that we’re not writing the stories with enough context so that you understand why what’s going on there really is important.”

I took another sip.

“The second possibility is that you’re an air-head, that you don’t understand that you are part of the world, and that when the world changes those changes have some impact on you whether or not you notice it”

Understand that I was two thirds of the way through a second martini. Besides, what was he going to do? Hit me on a airplane full of respectable passengers and trained crew?

He appeared completely unfazed, perhaps because he, too, was mostly finished with a second cocktail. Showing no sign of being insulted, he explained that he was interested only in the things that directly affected his life—his work, his family, his nice suburban home and its large lawn, his investments, and his recreations, which were golf and a power boat.

“If it doesn’t deal with one of those, I’m not interested in reading about it,” he said.

End of story. Why bring it up now?

Because of the continuing debate about not just the future of journalism but the future of democracy without journalism, or at least without the endangered “mainstream media” and its (relatively) evenhanded accounts of the news.

No, this is not another one of those romantic delusions about how free institutions as we know them will die without the traditional newspaper serving as “a bulwark of democracy,” as Michael Hirschorn’s recently wrote in the Atlantic (in a piece somewhat hysterically suggesting that the New York Times might be going out of business right about now).

Still, it is reasonable to assume that if government of the people is to function with the minimum required doses of efficiency and equity, those people who govern should have at least some idea of what’s going on. It matters not whether they get that information by print or pixel; they just have to get it.

And there is now something close to a consensus among the broader journalistic community (actual practitioners in both old and new media as well as the financiers, the academics, and the ever-expanding corps of critics) that the old “business model” for providing this information is dead, so the key challenge now is to find the new one.

Somewhere out there is the instrument by which a compan, foundation, or some other entity can earn a profit or at least break even as it transmits this information to a waiting public.

But suppose the public isn’t waiting. Or just suppose that enough of it isn’t waiting, enough to allow that entity to make money or break even.

By himself, one grouchy, self-absorbed (and perhaps half-inebriated) guy on an airplane almost 20 years ago is not evidence of…well, of anything at all, much less of a sweeping sociological transformation.

But of course he is not by himself. For decades, political scientists, economists, sociologists and even journalists have been pondering what they consider the increasing atomization of American society, a decline in social capital and civic engagement.

Some of this analysis has been pretty murky. Oh, hell, some of it has been downright horse manure, and almost none of it is provable beyond a reasonable doubt. But it can’t be casually dismissed, either. Even last year, voter turnout in the presidential election was smaller than it was in 1960, when millions were effectively disenfranchised because of their race.

People live farther apart from one another. Kids sit at home playing video games instead of mingling at the playground. Folks don’t even go to the movies much anymore. If they don’t download them, they order them on line, get them by mail, watch them at home.

So it’s hard to deny that there has been some weakening of the individual’s connection to the general community. Some observers—the free market purists—celebrate the trend ,perhaps accelerating it in the process.

All of which raises the question of whether there remain enough potential customers of news as traditional newsies have understood it, enough people who are interested in what is going on the world around them, who care about what their state, local and national governments are doing, who understand that public policy is important, even when it has no direct or immediate impact on their own personal lives.

Or, even if there are enough of them, are there enough who want to get their information in the way mainstream journalism has provided it in the last several decades, as even-handedly as humanly possible, by reporters and editors who regard themselves as disinterested observers rather than partisan advocates?

Because if society is not entirely atomized, it is surely more balkanized. Not only do people live father apart, more of them live in subdivisions in which all the houses are comparably priced, meaning all the residents earn similar incomes. There is somewhere less day-to-day mingling than there was a few decades ago. No surprise, then, that even many who do want to know what’s going on want to learn it only from sources they find congenial. From Huffington Post or Pajamas Media rather than from the New York Times.

There is evidence to the contrary. A recent editorial in the Columbia Journalism Review, noting the millions who read the Times on the Web each month, concluded that “a mighty public appetite for serious reporting and analysis remains.”

Could be. And surely there was never a golden age in which the rich and poor regularly got together for beer and skittles and the average Joe bought the paper to read about the dings in Russia or the Congress as opposed to getting the ball scores, his horoscope, and the skinny on the latest juicy murder.

But that guy on the plane at O’Hare, who was and is not so unusual, was no average Joe. He was affluent, articulate, seemingly educated. Just the kind of person who used to subscribe to his local high quality newspaper. Which he did, until he decided that it—and the things it wrote about—didn’t have anything to do with his life.

Maybe all those experts looking for the new business model should pause now and then to ponder whether, in a self-absorbed age, there is sufficient demand for information about the world to justify the supply.