Do people still read books? Or newspapers or even websites? A couple of weeks ago I was sharing a private conversation with a locally elected politician. He brought up the concern that reading has become something relegated to a cultural artifact. I remember seeing research more than 30 years ago and it showed the advent of television had severely curtailed reading over the previous 30 years. I’m not aware of any research after the arrival of radio and motion pictures but I believe the same correlation existed.
Print media consolidation during the middle of the last century probably had many factors, but anyone in media would agree new forms of electronic communication played a role in winnowing the print market. The public has a fixed share of dollars and the same with advertisers. In junior high school a history teacher challenged us to read newspapers every day. We were required to keep a clip file of what we had been reading and he would review our files and ask questions to ensure we retained portions of the stories. When he retired several years ago, he embarked on a second volunteer career teaching civics and the Constitution. I’m reminded efforts to adopt civics in Idaho schools was generally panned by the state’s newspaper editors. Nothing like cutting off your nose to spite your face!
One kid in the classroom didn’t participate. His family didn’t take the paper, and he explained his dad argued you could get all the news you wanted from television. Aside from electricity it got piped into the home for free. Our teacher just looked at my classmate with a bewildered expression. There was a running joke for many years at class reunions when we didn’t see our friend from the TV-only household. Whereabouts unknown! Until someone chimed in we should contact the county jail. The fellow had been brilliant, dropped out of school and took up a life of a small-time burglar. I’m not saying there’s a correlation to not reading newspapers. Although, I’m reminded of the Rob Lowe commercials about the loser watching cable TV and the winner getting his shows from satellite television.
We may be living in a time where interest in reading is falling at an accelerated rate. Less than a decade ago I would post blogs and lengthy essays at the website affiliated with the radio station for which I worked. Many would get tens of thousands of page views. Lucianne Goldberg linked to one of my rants one Saturday morning and I had thousands of hits in less than one hour. The comments section would be filled with invective. Often there were hundreds of responses. A few scant years later and I’m grateful if I see a few hundred hits. We seem relegated to searching for views by asking people if they know what most Idahoans consider their favorite color.
At home I’m drowning in books. Even learned friends wonder why I don’t give them away or use a Kindle. Because the printed word is a record. Even when the lights flicker the printed word remains the same. Available by candles and sunlight and always ready for reference.
There’s also a belief among many in public life the lack of reading is translating into a lack of public participation in government, service clubs and voluntary activities. Again, the numbers all begin to sag at the time of the arrival of television, and our entertainment choices have only exponentially ballooned over the last 70 years. The thing is, I don’t ever recall any great interest in attending public meetings.
At the very same time I was maintaining a newspaper clip file in eighth grade, I attended my first public hearing. The local school board was considering a ban on students leaving campus during the lunch hour. It was a privilege granted to high schoolers and it was potentially going to impact my liberty the following year. Two friends joined me at the meeting and I had to practically drag them from the comfort of home on a cold winter night. My parents didn’t attend. The parents of my two friends didn’t attend. A handful of adults spoke in favor of law and order, including a next-door neighbor. He was a state trooper and he got cheered by the small crowd and board members. I spent lunch period in high school eating in the cramped cafeteria.
A decade later I was attending public meetings almost daily and frantically taking notes. My glamorous career as a media stenographer was underway. I don’t doubt we provided a public service. Citizen attendance at meetings is often a matter of competition. People have a lot on their plates and kids have practice and some nights the roads are slippery, and then there are simply the nights you want to catch a couple of shows and then get to sleep early.
The editor of this newspaper rightly points out his columnists could offer much more local flavor. First, what do we mean by local? The culture war is national and local. Taxes fit the same description. And I think we’re a lot less concerned about the direction of local government than shenanigans in Washington. As long as streets are plowed and potholes are fixed most people don’t complain about local government.
We need to also consider media’s role. When I first joined a large radio news operation there were two dozen people working in a newsroom now staffed by two. A few hours down the highway, KSL could be employing 100 but it’s a rare commitment any longer in media. Newspapers in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Lewiston, Idaho, have large endowments and maintain a large reporting presence. However, the majority are getting by with skeleton crews and some newsrooms are empty for stretches of 48 hours or more.
Let me close with this thought. It’s a combination of media consolidation and changing public tastes. Assigning blame to any specific group isn’t possible. As for the public, we only think everyone used to pack New England town meetings. I belch opinions all week long and yet twice this month people have written me as if I’m an investigative reporter. Rush Limbaugh was once named the country’s most popular news anchor, which he’s not. Still, tomorrow, the sun will still rise and most of our fellow citizens will navigate the day without a hitch.