A Publication of WTVP

You don’t have to work at a newspaper or TV station to know that there are major changes going down with U.S. media these days.

So there’s nothing overly dramatic about a book entitled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights? (New Press 2011), with an empty office depicted on the cover. The collection of essays is edited by Bob McChesney and Victory Pickard.

McChesney is the University of Illinois communications professor eminently qualified to weigh in on the nation’s journalistic meltdown. He’s written a raft of books on the subject (last year’s was The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, with John Nichols) and his weekly radio show, “Media Matters,” has run for years in Champaign, including interviews with some of the top media people in the country.

McChesney, by the way, will speak on media issues at Bradley University on Tuesday, October 4th at 8pm.

Some of what you find in Last Reporter is familiar territory. “Meet the American newspaper of 2008,” writes Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin, who points out that there are fewer pages, shorter stories and less foreign and national news. “But coverage of some local issues has strengthened, and investigative reporting remains highly valued,” he notes.

There’s that ray of hope amid the media wreckage that makes this book a tool—not an obituary. The villain in the piece is not the almighty Internet as one might assume, but corporate ownership that has sucked the life out of community coverage.

Frank Blethen, whose family founded the Seattle Times in 1896, has an answer. “Government must attack the root problem by expressly limiting control and ownership of our nation’s once-independent system of news and journalism companies. A limit on newspaper ownership is vitally important.”

But it’s not enough for government to simply come up with a magic number, indicating how many media outlets you can own, said Blethen. “Returning newspapers and media companies to local hands will require government help in other ways: access to capital.”

In the best of newspaper traditions, Last Reporter includes a variety of voices. One of these is Matt Welch, editor of Reason magazine, who points to a societal shift behind the media uproar. “The authoritative voice is in full retreat, from Reader’s Digest to the editorial page to Newsweek,” writes Welch, indicating that today’s customer “has moved away from yesterday’s news bundle.”

McChesney has his own points to offer, suggesting that author George Orwell would be aghast to see the condition of the journalism profession today (especially after the Murdoch affair in the U.K.) “In the 21st century, Big Brother won’t be watching you,” he wrote in an essay co-authored with John Nichols. “You will be watching Big Brother—a 24/7 spin cycle of pundits and sound bites—an information cacophony managed not by the ink-stained wretches of old, not by journalists struggling in their imperfect way to speak truth to power, but by power itself.”

The book doesn’t just focus on newspapers. One writer observes that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the 21st century’s answer to Walter Cronkite, based on trust. Leonard Downie, Jr., former editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, faculty member of The Journalism School at Columbia University, detail a reconstruction plan for American journalism that runs the gamut, suggesting changes in the tax code and an increase in local news coverage by public radio and TV stations while calling for the collaboration of foundations and universities with journalistic efforts.

McChesney recalls another famous journalist by the name of Walter—this one being Lippmann—who had concerns about responsible views being maintained in a free society. Those concerns loom large after a quick scan of present-day TV or talk radio. “A journalism-free world chock full of people free to spout their opinions, therefore, is hardly a free society, and in no sense can it be regarded as democratic. It is far closer to a living hell,” wrote McChesney.

Last Reporter is a vivid chronicle of our descent into that hell and what it will take to come back.

Steve Tarter is business editor of the Peoria Journal Star.