Early last week, media conglomerate Hearst Communications ordered the San Francisco Chronicle to cut its expenses, or else, delivering one of the most significant blows print media has seen yet. Hearst wasn’t specific about the cost-cutting plans, but suffice to say it involved some pretty serious layoffs. It’s par for the course in today’s economy, but the recession isn’t the only thing fueling this disaster. There’s another, even bigger challenge to print media’s stake in our national discourse; that is, of course, the Internet.
Print media first started to face major challenges with the birth of cable news networks and the 24-hour news cycle, starting with CNN in the 1980s. Not coincidentally, this is about the same time that newspaper circulation numbers started to decline. In the past ten years, the proliferation of online media outlets has continued to challenge newspapers and circulation numbers have plummeted at a steeper rate than ever before. Even big-name papers like The New York Times and USA Today are struggling to maintain their readership. The recent news about the SF Chronicle is not so much shocking or surprising as it is the first tangible sign of the inevitable decline of print media.
Back in the 1980s, when print media first started to weaken, we had Neil Postman and his astoundingly insightful, ahead-of-its-time treatise, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, Postman railed against the broadcast news industry, arguing that the very nature of television as a medium was inadequate for serious discourse about current events. Several others have followed in his footsteps, asserting that broadcast news, and now the Internet, has reduced the standards of journalism and has lead to sensationalism, opinions, and entertainment instead of news.
As a new media enthusiast (aka Internet nerd), I want to dismiss all the naysayers who are clinging on to antiquated ideas of what media should be and how it should function. The times, they are a-changing, so either get with the program or get out.
But on the other hand, I adore Postman and agree with a lot of what he has to say. In the foreword Amusing Ourselves to Death, he draws a stunning comparison between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World that I think holds more relevance today than ever before:
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.