A Little Media History for streets.mn Readers

(No Exit) ScabsI recently watched an amazing 29-minute, on-line documentary film about the last day of lead type at the New York Times. It’s called “Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu” and I recommend everyone watch it.  The date is July 2, 1978 and, for around a hundred years prior to that date, this was how newspapers were put together– with molded lead “hot” type, in frames, using heavy machinery, molds, molten lead and huge numbers of employees. The New York Times layout and pre-printing operations required several floors of a large building, 140 linotype machines, and machinery for making 40lb lead plates that attached to their printing presses. When computer type arrived in the late 1970s, all this became obsolete and vast numbers of people got laid off or took early retirements. What happens in this short film was happening at newspapers all over the country.

As you watch the movie, imagine all the lead-type machines, band saws, mold making and other equipment that was now rendered obsolete. Then imagine how the factories in Ohio and elsewhere who made this machinery for a hundred years were suddenly out of business. Such is the history of automation. Using mechanical and computer technology, companies strive to streamline production processes and eliminate employees, all in an effort to save money and make profits. I’m not suggesting that eliminating lead-type was necessarily a bad thing. Lots of people got lead poisoning, lost fingers or worse from this stuff. But the late 1970s were the beginning of a contraction in the journalism industry that continues to this day.

The computer typesetting technology which replaced lead type lasted less than twenty years. In this process (explained in the movie), columns of type were assembled by early computers on pieces of photo paper. These strips and photo-stat images had sticky wax applied to them and were literally “pasted up” onto larger sheets to create newspaper and magazine page layouts. These would be scanned to make printing plates using a photo-chemical process. Newspapers still needed employees to manually paste up dozens of pages and prepare printing plates, but they needed far fewer than they’d required for lead type.

When I got into the journalism business as a cartoonist in 1991, the once “new” paste-up process was rapidly being replaced by “Desktop Publishing.” Now, one person using a primitive page-layout computer program like Aldus PageMaker could put together a thirty-six page paper that had formerly taken a staff of six or eight people to assemble. What’s more, the new desktop personal computers could do it faster, with less space, materials or equipment. The paper where I worked, The Daily Californian was slow to change over to the new desktop publishing technology, resulting in a bankruptcy reorganization, lots of layoffs and downsizing to a much smaller office.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was gradually replacing print media. Newspapers and magazines started making websites to cater to younger readers who were turning to the internet for news and didn’t want to pay for newspaper or magazine subscriptions. These websites created some new jobs but they generated much less advertising revenue than print media, and no subscription fees. Worse, click-thru advertising or Google Adwords had a negative trickle-down effect on print media. Because print media audiences and advertising response rates were much less quantifiable than internet ads, advertisers became less willing to pay large sums of money to print publications for quarter, half and full-page advertisements.

The big death knell for print media was the widespread popularity and adoption of Craigslist. In one fell swoop, Craigslist (which employs just 40 people) wiped out the classified advertising sections of newspapers and magazines nationwide. What had been a major source of print media’s revenue dried up almost overnight. This resulted in more media bankruptcies, consolidations, contractions and layoffs, including many reporters. With fewer reporters and profitable publications, coverage of news declined, especially at the local level.

Today, few people under thirty years of age get a newspaper, magazine, or cable TV subscription. They rely on social media, Netflix shows, blogs, and “free” media for their news and information. This and the advent of Google Adwords and click-thru advertising has created fertile ground for “click-bait” journalism and “fake news”. These produce increasingly sensationalized (and polarized) headlines designed to get you to click and help sell advertising. We’ve also seen the rise of politically biased fake news, produced by political parties or private interests trying to enrage you and/or suck you into a particular political party or viewpoint. Sites like Breitbart, Infowars or Occupy Democrats, serve up simplified, poorly sourced or often entirely fake news stories. In the current environment, news consumers have to be much more careful in determining the truthfulness of their news sources.

Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election was the ultimate testimonial to the decline of the mainstream (a.k.a. “paid, professional”) news media. Mainstream media’s opposition to Trump and their endorsements of his opponents, had almost no impact on the election. Trump employed Twitter, social media, fake news sites, professional news trolls and non-mainstream media platforms to get his message to the public. Contrary to the statements of professional news troll Mike Cernovich,  Noam Chomsky’s idea of “Manufacturing Consent” still exists. But now it has to be done in a much more chaotic and decentralized media environment.

Why is all this relevant to the readers of streets.mn? It’s part of our history. In the absence of good, in-depth reporting on local transportation issues, streets.mn and the national “Streetsblog” network have attempted to fill the void. Streets.mn is just one of thousands of niche news blogs that are trying to make up for declines in the journalism industry. They don’t have offices, just digital space on web servers. These sites replaced paid professional editors, writers and reporters with volunteer, citizen journalists. Even some for-profit media sites have given themselves over to using bloggers and citizen journalists for large chunks of their on-line content. Huffington Post, Washington Post online, Forbes.com and other sites have lots of content that isn’t really edited or fact checked.

Replacing paid professionals with volunteers or non-profit media is not entirely negative. Many of the folks blogging on streets.mn are professionals or activists, involved in the transportation business, working for engineering firms, local or state agencies, planning boards, universities or non-profits. So they often know more about a given transportation issue than the average professional news media reporter. Because they are unpaid, however, you tend to get the perspectives and opinions of somewhat wealthier people who have the extra leisure time and willingness to post or are being supported by their employers and non-profits. More importantly, courts and legislators have not always given bloggers and volunteer citizen journalists the same legal rights and protections as their professional predecessors.

Defamation, libel, and shield laws (which protect reporters from having to reveal sources) are mostly state based. Some states have good laws and some don’t. In a few instances courts have claimed that bloggers or volunteer citizen reporters are not “journalists”, forcing bloggers to turn over sources and making it easier to sue bloggers for libel. This in turn makes it easier for political parties and wealthy interests to overwhelm and silence citizen journalists with “SLAPP” suits– “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” This is where someone will sue journalists, bloggers or others for defamation just to tie them down in the courts and harass them for a period of time. A former blogging friend of mine was sued for libel by a Republican legal operative named Larry Klayman. It was a frivolous, ungrounded lawsuit but it took almost four years to be thrown out. During this time, Klayman was able to force my friend and other parties to the suit to submit to depositions, subpoenas, and document requests, which sucked up huge amounts of everyone’s time and money. Attorneys had to be hired in Florida, where Klayman filed the suit, and Florida lacks anti-SLAPP suit laws, enabling Klayman to bring the case. Fortunately, my friend had been working for a newspaper that funded his legal defense. If he’d been working independently, he could have gone bankrupt paying attorneys, court costs, and other expenses.

Even though he lost, Klayman’s SLAPP suit had its desired effect. The threat of suits, frivolous copyright complaints and other hassles greatly diminished my friend’s desire and ability to continue blogging. In recent years, lawsuits have wiped out on-line publications like Gawker.

This is the “New World Media Order” that streets.mn and other blog sites operate in. Consider how far we’ve come since 1978 and where we’re going. Perhaps we need to strengthen protections for bloggers and journalists working in non-traditional media. And maybe the media should experiment with new pay-wall schemes to help more established blogs and media sites survive. In the meantime, if you like what you read, donate to streets.mn and your favorite blogs and non-profit media sources…

And consider subscribing to some of the good paid media outlets that still exist, like The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Nation, and others. Who knows how long they’ll be around?

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Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer served as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition off and on for 13 years. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored four books including his last, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at AndySinger.com.