The Press Is in Decline

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, May 8, 2005

In this great country, there are newspaper editorial pages of every political stripe, from nearly insane far-left rantings to the Wall Street Journal. But when the United States faces a danger to its most important institutions and values, Americans can count on the newspaper industry to put aside petty differences and speak with one voice.

Now is such a moment. The enemy is invisible, indeed inexplicable, but could be fatal to all we hold dear. In short: Some evil force is causing people to stop reading newspapers! Newspaper circulation figures, which had been drifting decorously downward for years, have started to plummet. At the current rate of decline, the last newspaper subscriber will hang up on a renewal phone call that interrupts dinner on Oct. 17, 2016. And then it will be over.

This alarming possibility threatens all of us, because reading newspapers is, in the end, what makes us Americans. We are prudent, practical, common-sense people. And what could be more common-sense -- more downright American -- than chopping down vast swaths of trees, loading them onto trucks, driving the trucks to paper mills where the trees are ground into paste and reconstituted as huge rolls of newsprint, which are put back onto trucks and carted across the country to printing plants where they are turned into newspapers as we know them (with sections folded into one another -- or not -- according to a secret formula designed for maximum mess and frustration and known only to a few artisans) and then piling these finished newspapers into a third set of trucks that fan out before dawn across every metropolitan area dropping piles here and there, so that a network of newspaper deliverers can transfer them to smaller trucks or cars and go house to house hiding newspapers in the bushes or throwing them at the cat, and patriotic citizens can ultimately glance at the front page, take Sports to the john, tear out the crossword puzzle and throw the rest away?

Newspapers are essential to every American, and none more so than the fools and ingrates who have stopped buying them. It is up to us, as members of the last generation that experienced life before computer screens, to make sure that future generations of Americans will know what to do when it says "Continued on Page B37." In a recent survey of Americans younger than age 30, only 26 percent said "Look in Section B," and a pitiful 13 percent chose the correct answer, which is "Look FOR Section B. It's around here somewhere." As a service to humanity and because I like my job, here is a seven-point plan to save the newspaper industry.

Point one: The government must step in to stabilize the newspaper market through a program of "newspaper circulation supports." These would be similar to the agricultural price supports that have preserved a treasured American lifestyle (working from dawn to dusk seven days a week, except for a few brief hours a day down at the diner in town complaining about big government and welfare chiselers). Wide fluctuations in newspaper circulation are not good for anyone, although we in the industry accepted decades of upward fluctuation with stoic silence. By paying newspaper publishers not to publish newspapers, the government can reduce the dangerous excess supply and preserve the beloved journalistic lifestyle (drinking at lunch, ruining the reputations of innocent Republican politicians and filling out expense reports).

Point two: We must establish a Strategic Newspaper Reserve to reduce the nation's dangerous dependence on foreign news. At a time when brides in this very country are fleeing their marriages on buses and pretending to be kidnapped, it is nothing short of scandalous that so much ink is being spilled about some war in distant Iraq. As with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the government would buy vast quantities of newspapers on the open market and store them somewhere for a rainy day (when they can be delivered sopping wet, as the newspaper industry prefers whenever possible). One possible location for the reserve might be my mother's apartment, where there are already neat piles of newspapers dating back to Watergate that she is going to get to soon. If you go to inspect the reserve, please don't tell her how the 2000 election came out. She wants to be surprised.

Point three: The No Child Left Behind Act must be amended to guarantee that every young person in America graduates from junior high knowing how to read a newspaper. Skills such as turning to Page D3 while standing at a bus stop with a Starbucks latte in one hand and an umbrella in the other are in danger of fading away as the younger generation is seduced by the siren glow of the computer screen. When a tradition like fighting over the comics or noticing that your ex-wife has married that guy -- unbelievable! -- disappears from our shared national memory, it is gone for good.

Point four: Floyd Abrams, the nation's most prominent and enthusiastic First Amendment lawyer, must come up with a reason why canceling your newspaper subscription, or failing to renew it, is unconstitutional. C'mon, Floyd -- you've kept a straight face through claims about the rights of journalists that are almost as audacious as this one. Now is your chance to go for the gold.

Point five: Find someone else to come up with three more points.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company