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Originally published June 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 6, 2008 at 10:26 AM


Ryan Blethen / The Democracy Papers

Going to a media mugging with my head held high

A year and a half ago I wrote about my experience at the National Conference for Media Reform. I compared my attendance at the Memphis...

The Democracy Papers is a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech. Technology has created space for more voices, yet fewer and fewer are heard.

The American press and media are being decimated by consolidation. This transformation from many owners into five or six large corporations and the lessening of small outlets for radio, newspapers, magazines and music are chilling a once robust marketplace of ideas. What should Americans do? This series explores the arguments and the backlash.

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A year and a half ago I wrote about my experience at the National Conference for Media Reform. I compared my attendance at the Memphis, Tenn., conference to being mugged.

A hefty portion of the speakers and panelists slammed journalists like me, journalists who work for traditional news outlets such as newspapers. The term "MSM" — Main Stream Media — shot like a venomous pejorative from their tongues when speaking of me and my kind.

I expect some of the same at this year's conference in Minneapolis, which begins today and runs through Sunday. In Memphis, I was able to sift through the more-outlandish claims against us mainstreamers and thought deeply about the legitimate complaints.

The sting was superficial at best. I sympathize with those in the media-reform movement. There are many recent examples of poor journalism for them to get worked up about. I cringe when reading and watching the shallow reports on the presidential campaign. Please, do not get media reformers going on the reporting on the run-up to the Iraq war. They will go on and on, yet rightly point out that the sloppy reporting was enough to make an errant Scud missile appear accurate.

While I understood the anger and concerns of the 3,500 conferences attendees, I also believe they conveniently overlooked the many good things happening in the world of the traditional press, especially at newspapers. Much of the content on the blogs and alternate media read and watched by reformers originates from newspapers.

Reformers also seem to have an easy time holding onto the bad and heaping a disproportionate amount of blame onto newspapers. Does anybody honestly believe the Bush administration would not have found a way to invade Iraq had the press aggressively reported the illicit weapons angle? I think not.

I will have a chance to defend my beloved profession on a panel tomorrow titled, "Newspapers: Not Dead Yet?" That question mark is so reassuring. Since the Memphis conference, we have gone from being out-of-touch money-grubbers to being hooked up to life support.

It is true that the newspaper industry is struggling. The bottom has dropped out of the newspaper business model. We are hardly alone, though. Many industries — think autos and mortgages — are also in severe periods of adjustment.

There are many reasons for the troubles rocking newspapers. The biggest culprits are publicly traded newspapers and a permanent change in the kind of advertising consumers want.

The importance of newspapers is not lost on Free Press, which works on issues like media consolidation and tries to give voice to citizens in the media debate. The organization has done a superb job nurturing the conference.

The first conference — in 2003 in Madison, Wisc. — drew 1,700 people. That number ballooned to 3,500 in Memphis. Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, expects that same number in Minneapolis. I expect more, if the rising cost of gas and everything else does not keep people at home.

Silver said the conference started as a way to get media reformers under one tent. The conference has clearly become the touchstone for many in the movement — a place to brainstorm, recharge.

The trick is to make sure issues like media consolidation, which was one of the first Free Press took on, are not forgotten while applying pressure in new areas, Silver said.

"We have to make sure that the fight for traditional media continues," he said. "At the same time, we have to refocus our work to the Internet."

Silver's comments are reassuring. The media comprise a huge organism. If one part of it is unhealthy, the rest can suffer. Traditional media, as Silver calls us newspaper folks, still drive what people read, watch and listen to.

Are newspapers dead yet? I would not be going to another river town for a healthy mugging if I believed that.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

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