In a book called "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller," Michael Korda lists the best-selling books in each year of the 20th century. It's fascinating to read because most of the best-sellers are books I've never heard of, written by people whose names I don't recognize. Browsing the lists, once in a while you come across a familiar name: Winston Churchill (1901), A. Conan Doyle (1902), Upton Sinclair (1906). For the most part, though, the best-selling writers of the past are forgotten today.
Why? Primarily because they wrote bad or forgettable books. The classics tend to endure because they deserve to endure. They're good and meaningful for multiple generations.
But there's another important lesson to be gleaned from "Making the List." You often hear that back in the day, people were better informed, more engaged with serious matters. They read serious news and literature, rather than all the gossipy junk that floods the media today.
The only problem with this nostalgic vision is that it's bunk. In fact, a large percentage of the population has always been interested in trashy novels, entertainment gossip and other such diversions. In 1925, "The Great Gatsby," one of the most revered American novels, was not a best-seller. In that same year, "Diet and Health" by Lulu Hunt Peters topped the nonfiction list.
I was reminded of Korda's book Wednesday night during a panel discussion called "The Death of Old News," sponsored by UNLV's Black Mountain Institute. The panelists were public television newsman Jim Lehrer, veteran journalist Alex S. Jones and Las Vegas Sun Editor Brian Greenspun.
During the discussion, Jones, author of a well-received new book called "Losing the News," made the point that there's nothing new about readers being interested in what hard-core news people call fluff. Going back decades, he said, many people have subscribed to the daily newspaper for reasons other than to become better informed about the workings of their local, state and federal governments. They've wanted the sports scores, the crossword puzzle, the comics, the advertisements. Then and now, he said, most of us do not crave serious news.
And so, if news was the same as any other product in the marketplace, we probably would drop the serious stuff and print only the most popular items. But, Jones said, newspapers are different, because they're "a business with a public service attached to it." News organizations have an obligation, he argued, to cover the affairs of government, to watch and dig and question on behalf of the rest of us.
This was not a big issue when newspapers, in particular, were among the most profitable companies in the land. But then the perfect storm hit: the combination of the digital revolution and the global recession. The Internet cut into paid readership, while the recession slashed advertising revenue. Thousands of reporters and editors were laid off nationally, leaving industry observers to worry about the future of serious news. "Quality journalism costs money," said Lehrer, and extra cash is not something many news organizations have today.
Yet it's vital, Jones said, that news organizations continue to do what he calls "iron core" journalism. By this he doesn't mean partisan pontificating; he means exposing problems in society and probing what the government is doing. "If the core is lost, it will just be a lot of hot air," he said.
So, how do we preserve serious journalism in this age of diminishing resources? Neither Jones nor Lehrer had the answer, but they offered a few compelling ideas. Lehrer, longtime host of the "PBS NewsHour," said news organizations must form "coalitions and cooperative ventures." He mentioned that his television program is working with news outfits such as Pro Publica, the GlobalPost and National Public Radio to boost news coverage. In his book, Jones suggests that some of America's richest individuals -- acting solely on the basis of strengthening the democracy -- donate to a fund to finance serious journalism.
Greenspun asked his fellow panelists to comment on an idea: What would happen if the nation's major newspapers got together and decided not to publish an edition on a particular day? Because newspapers do the bulk of the actual news reporting across the country, he said, it would be an awfully quiet day. None of the radio show hosts or television talking heads would have anything to scream about. Such a day of news silence, he reasoned, would reveal just how essential newspapers are to the public discourse.
Jones disagreed. "Unfortunately, a lot of people would say, 'Who cares?' " With a million different ways to entertain ourselves today, many wouldn't notice the newspaper hadn't arrived, he said.
That said, Jones stressed there are still enough people who want serious news to keep beat reporters and investigative teams working. Besides, he said,"It's important whether they want it or not."
In the end, the strength of our democracy depends on the public's desire to participate in it. We cannot thrive on a diet of celebrity gossip and partisan rhetoric alone.
Geoff Schumacher (email@example.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.