Daily news blues

Joan Silvi, who does an excellent job as news director of Wayne State University’s WDET-FM 101.9, correctly chastised me for last week’s column, in which I noted that you would have a hard time finding out much about Detroit City Council from the media.

In fact, WDET sends a reporter — normally, Quinn Klinefelter — to council meetings whenever they are in session, and he reports on at least one item of interest.

That’s wonderful, but not enough. Radio is an excellent news medium, but to understand a complicated spending bill, say, the citizen needs to see the details in black and white. Yet to their shame, the Detroit dailies, which have vast armies of reporters compared to Silvi’s little band, often don’t cover Detroit City Council at all.

Silvi showed me a memo from her reporter last week. “Dear Joan: I got a call from a Freep reporter asking me to help them on a story concerning City Council, which I covered but they missed. As you’re aware, this is a fairly frequent practice of News and Free Press people calling me for specifics on what’s happening.”

“They at times don’t seem to have a sense of what is really going on,” he added.

Well, of course they don’t. Understanding politics and government, and making them interesting and accessible, is serious work. It is a lot easier to whack out a story about the latest pervert fingered for trying to pick up children on the Internet.

Daily newspapers are, in fact, withering, especially “metropolitan” chain newspapers, which have no idea what they are or ought to be. (Chat with Heath Meriwether for half an hour, if you need proof.) More and more, they are living fossils.

Figures vary, but most agree Americans buy slightly fewer total copies of daily newspapers than they did in 1965. That’s extremely bad — considering we have almost 100 million more people now.

That isn’t to say the papers don’t do some good work, still. Oddly enough — or perhaps not so oddly — the best thing they’ve done in years is the Free Press’ The Detroit Almanac; everyone ought to buy at least one.

Yet the worst thing about the News and Free Press is that they, with an assist from the kamikaze leadership of the unions, have managed to convince people they are no longer indispensable. City buses sport signs saying “It’s finally over,” (the strike) and which then, with an admirable dollop of chutzpah a la Frank Vega, invite the peasants to “support newspaper unions” by resubscribing.

Trouble is, it isn’t working. The majority of area households no longer subscribe to either paper. They got out of the habit, and they aren’t going back, even if they see Lou Mleczko and Mark Silverman French-kiss on an Aggie Usedly special.

Oh, people may buy a paper out of the box two to three times a week. Once, I actually saw a man buy a Sunday joint product, extract the TV Book, and discard the rest.

But they are dead as a universal information source. Back in 1988, the News sold 670,000 papers daily; the Freep 630,000. Now the combined circulation of both don’t even reach 590,000. You have to work hard to destroy a product so thoroughly.

And they have. Frankly, the truth about the strike, never uttered by either side, is that the unions had incompetent leadership at the beginning, and in the final analysis didn’t want to win badly enough. They will resent that, but it is true. War — and this was a war — is not a tea party. If you don’t want to do what it takes to win, you ought not to start one.

I won’t say what they ought to have done. That was for them to figure out. However, it bears noting that when the first Jimmy Hoffa was running the Teamsters, reporters did not cross their picket lines. Nor did struck newspapers attempt to publish.

In the end the unions were in effect destroyed, or at least castrated, and the readers were the losers. Want proof? You can buy it for 35 cents.

None of this is to say that these newspapers will die. There will always be a need for a vehicle for metropolitan area-wide display advertising and movie listings, plus sports and stocks.

But these papers won’t get much better either. The Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) allowing them to combine created a sort of socialism for the rich. Ever since then, people have speculated on whether the out-of-state owners, who split costs and the profits equally, would eventually put out just one newspaper to save overhead.

Not long before he died, I asked that old devil, Coleman Young, about this. “You think there are two now, boy?” he said. Excellent answer. Someone should radically change the fast-dwindling Detroit News, which most days is rewarmed Detroit Free Press. Make it a flashy tabloid, or a serious intellectual product.

But that would cost money. And a better News might pull resources away from the flaccid Freep. Better to stay mediocre and split the proceeds, the money men say.

That doesn’t mean we won’t have good local journalism of a kind; small papers; newsletters; business publications. But most people won’t get enough. And what this does is further contribute to the fragmenting of our society.

No matter how justified our loathing of the ruthless newspaper corporations, that we are giving up the daily newspaper habit is not good. Barely half my university students know who the vice president is. Virtually none understands what McCain-Feingold is, or why it matters, or what the hell is happening to the economy or the power supply in California or the food supply in Britain.

Which means their ability to understand what is going to happen to them is severely limited. They do, however, know lots about Eminem.

Happy spring.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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