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News of the McClatchy bankruptcy begs the question: Can journalism be saved, and democracy with it?

“… Litany of the threats facing journalism …”

“The years since then [2000] have seen the economic devastation of the profession, which has been about as dramatic as any sector of the labor market …”

That’s the grim assessment and conclusion of Nicholas Lemann, Professor and Emeritus Dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, in “Can Journalism Be Saved?” in the February 27th issue of The New York Review of Books.

Of course, he’s not alone in bringing us this distressing analysis. And with good reason. Since 2004, some 1,800 US newspapers have closed. Paid circulation and ad revenue have dropped precipitously since 2016.

Sadly, The New York Times reports that the McClatchy news is instructive  “McClatchy a Major US Newspaper Chain Files for Bankruptcy” : “If the Chapter 11 plan gains court approval, McClatchy would become the latest newspaper company to fall under the control of Wall Street investors, an unlikely relationship that has become more common as the financial industry seeks to profit from an ailing business.” 

Why should we care? The “news business” in America, and around the world, has evolved for centuries. Think about the newspaper origin in early America as sponsored political pamphlets and, over more recent decades, the introduction of competitive news vehicles such as radio, television (network and cable) and most recently, social media.

But this is different by a high order of magnitude. Now news professionals, classic journalism and especially print journalism must withstand a combined onslaught of economics, technology — and yes, national politics. The “creative destruction” of Wall Street takeovers in itself may well be destiny,  but other current macro forces are also contributing factors.

Perhaps most dangerous: The very nature of social media news platforms – a new species of corporate power too often with negative influence and outcomes. Most imminent and dangerous to democracy is how social media platforms can be vehicles for intentionally misleading information to undermine truth and overwhelm the public people — and democracy – with misinformation .

In his recent book, “Zucked  – Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe”
Roger McNamee presents a highly likely description of how Russia impacted the 2016 U.S. elections mainly via social media reaching targeted potential voters. (He also gives this broad interpretation of how social media has gone astray in exploiting data and facilitating disruption: “Instead of technology being a tool of humanity, it is humans who are in service to technology.”) 

Finally, and most distressing, there are the growing threats – even physical – to journalists by autocrats in various countries.  In 2019 alone, 25 journalists were killed and at least 250 imprisoned according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as detailed in: “Applying Experience to Purpose”

Lemann’s reluctant conclusion:

“Journalism is a case in which it’s going to take a whole new set of arrangements, and a new way of thinking, to solve the present crisis.”