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“Newspapers and Free Speech.” 2009.

July 12th, 2009 · No Comments · Essays

by Tom Rider.

There will always be threats to free speech in this country from various orthodoxies, be they religious, or political, or social. ‘Speech’ should, of course, always be free in the first amendment sense. However, the kinds of information essential to a working democracy cannot be free in another sense. You can’t have free speech without ‘speech,’ and the question is ‘Who will pay for it?’ In a continuing poor economy, we may have to decide to get by with less ‘speech.’ Or we may find other ways to finance ‘speech.’

The economics of the newspaper industry are shaky. Some newspapers are disappearing, and the deteriorating economics of the industry has affected those that manage to survive. I am sure you are noticing that The Gainesville Sun is thinner and narrower these days. You may also have noticed that there are many fewer ads. There are whole pages with copy only. Ad revenue finances The Sun’s daily publication and delivery to our homes.

Newspapers are failing, and I don’t think the internet can save the situation. Lots of folks are enamored with the possibilities for speech that the internet has opened. Google blurbs? I don’t think so. As a successor to the newspaper industry, the internet has major limitations, particularly when it comes to providing local and state news. You can get a lot of opinions on the internet but little professional reporting. In the absence of The Gainesville Sun, who will cover city hall?  And the University? The faculty, students, staff, and the general public rely on The Sun and the Independent Florida Alligator for community and university news. Making matters worse, we have recently learned that the radio and television stations within the UF school of journalism will now be an “external platform for university publicity” rather than reporting on the university community.

Will internet bloggers leave their computers to gather the facts and present them with any semblance of professionalism? There are no editors to critique what they write or make them recheck their facts. No sense of responsibility for sloppy journalism. “But on the other hand” is a common part of good journalism. Bloggers and most internet sites make little effort to include contradictory evidence and opinions.

Newspapers, and their journalists, have served speech and therefore free speech well. But staff is being laid off, and they are the guts and brains of the fourth estate. Yet no one has figured out how serious professional journalism will be financed on the internet.

One frightening example of what is happening is the fate of science journalism. It bloomed in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1989 there were ninety-five newspapers in this country with science sections. But science journalists have fallen onto hard times along with their media employers. Even major urban newspapers in highly literate communities are giving up their science section. For example, The Boston Globe announced this past spring that it would be doing so. Science writing in newspapers has traditionally appealed to a general audience. We are interested in science but would not necessarily go to the effort to search daily through dozens of blogs and internet sites for science news unless we have been alerted to do so–by our local paper.

Believing in the importance of newspapers to free speech in this country? Worry about the economics of speech.

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