You remember the myth (heh) of the great America welfare queen, started by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 presidential campaign (slightly less embarrassing than his riff on "young bucks," but I digress..).According to the not-yet canonized St. Ronald, the biggest problem facing America in 1976 was not do much deindustrialization, rising gas prices or the senseless waste of the just-ended Vietnam War -- but a woman in the (predominantly black, of course) South Side of Chicago who had "eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards...." Yes, there was such a woman who cheated welfare but the Great Communicator's use of a random fraudster to symbolize all people battling poverty launched a 40-year jihad against allegedly "lazy poor people" that reached its logical conclusion last month with Tea Party Republicans voting to decimate food stamps.
But it turned out there's now a new problem with these poor women, the ones branded as "welfare queens."
They're also killing newspapers.
This social disintegration and decline in civic engagement coincide with the decline of traditional journalism just as much as the rise of the Internet does.
Indeed, newspapers still can sell themselves to traditional households -- two-parent families involved with their children, schools, churches, sports, civic groups, and such. But newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they're living in, and couldn't afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read. And such households constitute a rising share of the population.
OK, first of all, Powell's insightful column is called "Journalism's problem may not be the Internet." He may be onto something, sort of. Since the Daily News moved to 8th and Market, I've been mostly taking SEPTA transit to work; it's been about 15 months and the times that I've seen a "straphanger" reading a Daily News I could count on one hand -- and the next reader of the Inquirer that I see will be my first. I've seen hundreds of folks exercising their right forearms, fixated on their smartphones in front of them. So maybe it's smartphones and not "the Internet" that's killing print newspapers. But these folks I see every day informing themselves by means other than a newspaper are mostly leaving a home and going to a job. I haven't noticed anybody who appeared to be running from their landlord. Am I just naive?
That's the much, much broader problem, obviously, with Powell's attempt at social commentary. It's dripping with raw sexism (women are killing newspapers?...poor women?....especially, poor, slutty women?...really? Did newspapers achieve 100 percent market share among men when I wasn't looking?) and arguably with implied racism as well (certainly the line about speaking English). The tone, frankly, is shocking -- one of utter contempt for the people in his own community.
I, too, have written about this topic -- what is or isn't killing, or saving, newspapers -- quite a lot since I started this blog more than eight years ago. The one idea that I've tried to stress is my belief that newsrooms can survive if they focus on meeting the information needs of the people in their communities -- all the people, not just the upper middle class folks -- first and,worry about the best technology for reaching them second. So now we have Chris Powell as Exhibit A for exactly how NOT to save newsrooms.
So poverty and teen pregnancies are growing problems in the slice of Connecticut that his newspaper serves? Had he ever considered using some of the newspaper's real estate -- the space he just wasted with his rant against poor women -- with investigative reporting on rising income inequality or on successful programs (they exist -- I even wrote about one in Connecticut once [PDF]) that combat teen pregnancy? A rising number of folks can't afford newspapers or don't speak English. There are ways to reach such people -- supplements or online journalism in Spanish, or programs that seek to close the digital divide. Has Powell's Journal Inquirer bothered to explore any of these before today's whiny rant? There's a wave of people moving around to cheat landlords? Has Chris Powell's newspaper reported on this?
Or is he just talking out of his proverbial rear end? He's certainly not the first person to blame his anxiety about big problems that he can't control on poor people.
Look, I obviously don't know how to save the great American newspaper, whether it's paywalls or sponsored content or otter slideshows. But I do know the fastest and surest way to make a newspaper die-- to hold half of the community that you're supposed to be serving in utter, unvarnished contempt. I wouldn't say that Chris Powell is killing the American newspaper -- but he is killing his own newspaper.