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Hertzberg on the decline of newspapers

Ian Donnis // Published December 16, 2008 in The Providence Phoenix

Speaking at the Hi-Hat during FairVote RI's Ballot Bash last night, Hendrik Hertzberg talked up the national popular voteconcept as a way of enhancing democracy. As he noted, the 50 US states are divided into battlegrounds and spectators because of the decisiveness of the Electoral College. Four states -- Illinois, Maryland, Hawaii, and New Jersey -- have passed a NPV law, and activists in RI plan to seek an override of Governor Carcieri's veto of a related measure.

During the Q+A, Hertzberg was asked about two other important components of the electoral question -- money and media.

In response to a question about campaign finance, he said that NPV could have something of a leveling effect, since it will increase the importance of what have been spectator states in presidential elections, spreading campaign spending more broadly.

Hertzberg, of course, came to public attention as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter -- whose 1976 victory was largely a reaction to the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, and which was famously exposed by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Watergate and the image-related bump that it caused for the press inspired a generation of young men and women to become reporters.

Thirty-two years later, the newspaper industry is falling apart with increasing rapidity. So I asked Hertzberg, how will this affect small-d democracy?

He responded by saying, "Bloggers are essentially parasites on the newspaper industry." While newspaper readership remains high through print and Web sites, Hertzberg noted how the movement of readers to the Internet has undermined the economic model of newspapers (since Web-based advertising is far less profitable).

"I suppose something will take its place," Hertzberg said of newspapers, "but I don't what it is yet."

He expressed concern about what he called an increasingly common practice -- the way in which some newspapers no longer staff their own state capital. Hertzberg acknowledged not having a solution, but it's obviously not good, he said, when politics and the public's business take place with fewer and fewer journalistic eyes upon them.