Is it a shame that two-, three-, and five-newspaper towns are now one-newspaper towns? Or that so many of the remaining media companies are publicly traded and not privately held? Yes, but the consequences for news content are not obvious. In his chapter on newspapers, Klinenberg takes a seemingly sensible but unpromising tack: he points to important stories the contemporary press has missed, the implication being that cities and states were better served by the media in 1960 or 1980 than they are today. But yesterday’s more diverse and more locally owned press missed vital stories, too. Localities were not better served by the grand old press of family capitalism in which four out of five publishers preached in 1936 on behalf of Alf Landon and against FDR, that marvelous old press that had more than four hundred correspondents covering Washington, D.C., in 1972 but assigned at most fifteen of them to work full-time on a story called “Watergate” in the months before the 1972 election, that old noble press that repressed unfavorable local news and omitted practically all news about minorities in their communities. The news media, past and present, miss stories, and the explanation doesn’t always involve questions of ownership and concentration. Even the BBC, for instance, mostly missed the Holocaust. A media critic must ask what else, besides ownership patterns, matters.
Klinenberg deserves praise for his broad survey of the media—from newspapers and commercial radio to low-power radio, alt-weeklies, and the Internet. Even so, he omits two vital media domains—magazines and books. Both are more diverse, not less, than they were forty or fifty years ago. The original muckrakers of the early 1900s were writers for national, middle-class magazines, liberated by those publications’ national advertising and audience base to muckrake city governments more fiercely than the compromised local newspapers generally dared.
While all media matter, some matter more than others, and for the sake of democracy, print still counts most, especially print that devotes resources to gathering news. Network TV matters, cable TV matters, but when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media. Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil, seems determined to eviscerate newspapers. If we knew how to protect daily newspapers, I doubt there would be many worries about alt-weeklies or low-power radio.
Equally worthy of protection is the freedom of innovation and expression that digital media have thus far provided. This includes not just the Internet but cell phones and digital cameras that can easily transmit images over the Internet. Here the energies of media reformers, whether part of a media reform “movement” or not, are well spent. Klinenberg is insistent that the Internet is not the savior of press freedom, and he judges “the idea that new technology has rendered the dangers of consolidation obsolete” to be “the greatest and most dangerous media policy myth of the digital age.”
And yet, good reporter that he is, Klinenberg follows this judgment with notice of e-government Web sites as well as “hyperlocal websites and discussion forums” in middle-class neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that he praises for “sharing information and reinvigorating collective participation around every conceivable neighborhood issue and event.” Particularly interesting is his discussion of youth-oriented sites of local content, including Gothamist, begun in New York City but since reproduced in cities worldwide, and Baristanet, so named to suggest a virtual coffeehouse, in northern New Jersey. Having given us grounds for Internet hopefulness, Klinenberg then warns that these Web sites primarily serve the affluent at a time of a “deepening digital divide”—but evidence for that “deepening” is not offered. Klinenberg’s reporting is, again, stronger and more interesting than his ritualistic disgruntlement.