Serious news and its audience in short supply

Summer’s here at last and everyone wants to go light — light reading, light entertainment, light conversation, light beer. Nothing empties a room faster than the mention of gas prices, Iraq or the recession, and folks already are weary of the presidential campaign, even though it hasn’t really started yet.

Given all this, there’s not much of an audience for serious news, which is just as well because it’s in short supply anyway. In fact, it wouldn’t be overstating the case to put news (real news) on the endangered list.

Almost all of our daily newspapers (the Los Angeles Times being the latest example) are making exponential cuts in their news coverage, and some 1,000 newspaper jobs have been cut in the last week alone. The once-affluent news magazines are starved for ads and have essentially decided that readers don’t want news any more — they want a mixture of gossip and think pieces.

Thus Newsweek’s cover for its “summer double issue” is labeled the “Big Thoughts Edition” and, as if that weren’t sufficiently intimidating, Newsweek bills its main feature as “Lincoln vs. Darwin: Who Matters More?” If you vote “neither of the above,” you may lose your subscription.

Not to be outdone, Time’s cover story is titled “The Real Meaning of Patriotism” with contributions from two fresh voices, McCain and Obama. Acknowledging that this is not exactly a burning question, Time adds another, more pressing, question on its cover: “Does God Want You to Have More Sex?”

The quick answer: Definitely! (One evangelical guru not only recommends more sex but also an occasional blowjob).

The third news magazine, U.S. News and World Report, has taken a bolder approach to its problems: It’s essentially stopped publishing.

It’s argued that many folks get their news from radio and TV, but this argument depends on a rather loose definition of “news.” Rush Limbaugh just signed a rich new contract, but he’s in the propaganda business, not the news business. Meanwhile local TV news directors hold their viewers hostage to a numbing agenda of freeway chases and drunk-driving arrests.

The suits who run newspapers increasingly insist that their role is to supply features, since people get their hard news from their computers and handheld devices. By the time this information finds its way into print, they argue, its currency has diminished.

But what dominates the Web also consists of features and opinion. The self-styled aggregators and bloggers are persuaded that people turn to the Web for analysis, not for the basic facts.

Indeed, few experiences are more surreal than checking a so-called fact on the Internet. The Web was supposed to set us free, but it is rife with disinformation and misinformation, with mistakes perpetuated rather than corrected.

What we find, therefore, is that hard news has become a sort of political hot potato that’s passed around among the media, with no one quite willing to put up the time or money to keep it in supply. The public, thus, is a perfect target for Karl Rove types — sophisticated spin-doctors who can build bogus brands or propagate faux facts.

It’s painful to see the ranks of unemployed journalists expanding. By and large, they were originally attracted to their craft because they loved the news — and never thought news would become an anachronism.

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