You are not especially smart or particularly discerning. Nor are you a valued community member or an individual who deserves a voice.
You are a decimal on a spreadsheet: a “consumer,” a “pair of eyeballs,” a “user.”
At least that’s how those who control an ever-larger percentage of the news media refer to you—their readers, viewers, and listeners—when they’re making decisions regarding how to allocate limited resources and formulate content.
When media executives are sitting in the front office, frantic to serve unforgiving shareholders or stave off groups of anxious investors in the midst of an economic meltdown, there is no time for conversations about the role of the press in a free society. That sort of discourse is a luxury, something for journalism students or media critics and their ever-expanding audience of unemployed peers. In today’s marketplace, the quest for objectivity is folly; great storytelling is a romance language; in-depth reporting is as overpriced as it is unnecessary.
The goal is to either create (or repurpose or repackage) a risk-free product for the masses or pander to affluent, ideologically narrow niches. Anything that increases “audience share” and attracts advertisers, marketers, and brand managers who want to do the same.
And here’s the real kicker: The media’s decline is no one’s fault but our own. Sure, blaming the fall of our Fourth Estate on a combination of greed and opportunism makes for pithy party conversation—that analysis has even sold a few books. It’s those of us who complain the loudest, however, who both have the power and are duty-bound to facilitate a renaissance.
We’ve been conditioned to expect all the news that’s fit to print for less than the cost of a cup of coffee, gotten used to tuning in for the latest headlines and then, when an ad airs or a public broadcaster dares ask for a donation, hitting the snooze button. Because a keystroke and a click can conjure an ocean of data, we’ve confused breadth with depth, traded quality control for total access.
The time has come to demand a different supply and accept that the old way of doing business is no longer working for our once treasured sources of information. As advertisers drift to consumer websites or disappear altogether, we must become direct patrons of courageous television programming, civilly engaged newspapers, enterprising websites, community radio, and, yes, alternative magazines and journals.
From a public relations standpoint, one could argue that asking fans to renew a subscription at a higher rate or, God forbid, charging for electronic content would be perilous right now. Most everything is free online, and jobs are as scarce as thoughtful talk show hosts. Given the stakes, however, I submit that there’s never been a more appropriate moment to request that we set priorities for our spending and pay for the quality we claim to deserve. Thrift is born of tough choices, after all, not only about what we need, but also about what we most value.
When it comes to which periodicals are worth their weight in paper, I suggest that you start your selection process by paging through this issue of Utne Reader. Between the pages of our first annual international edition there are a host of stories from around the globe crafted by expert reporters with an in-depth knowledge that can come only from extended exposure to their subject—a process that requires precious time and money.
In particular, Lygia Navarro’s revelatory and courageous take on Cuba’s mental health care crisis, “Tropical Depression,” originally published by the Virginia Quarterly Review, hits hard because it puts a human face on a country that’s been reduced to caricature by pundits on both the left and the right. Andrew Westoll’s “The Mountain that Eats Men,” commissioned by Toronto’s Walrus magazine, is an adrenaline-pumping first-person account that, like any truly worthy piece of narrative nonfiction, maintains a steady flow of deep analysis without skipping a dramatic beat.
Both of the aforementioned publications, along with many others featured in this issue, are also among the 85 worthy nominees for the 20th annual Utne Independent Press Awards (p. 24). We winnow this list from the hundreds of magazines our editorial staff comes to admire each year, and the resulting group represents a commitment to the true calling of independent and alternative media.
Go ahead and seek out a few of them at your nearest bookstore or library. Then, after you pick some favorites of your own, make a call and fill out a subscription card or two, if only because it’s the last thing the media “experts” expect.