Before I brushed my teeth this morning, before I took the dog for a walk or turned on my coffee machine (yes, decaf) or did anything else, I turned the television on to MSNBC and booted up my computer to check FiveThirtyEight.com. Later today I'll run some errands, maybe bring some food to volunteers, and keep my weekly tutoring appointment, and while I do that I'll listen to Maine Public Radio.
What I won't do today is buy a newspaper.
I feel bad about this, because close friends of mine are newspaper reporters, and more than one has taken a buyout in the last couple of years. They're now working as PR professionals, teaching, writing novels and blogging. As often as not, the stories my friends used to write just don't get written any more.
It is a death spiral. Newspapers can't afford to keep their most seasoned reporters and editors, but when they let them go, the quality of news declines, and newspapers lose their credibility and their value to readers.
A month or two ago I asked one of my sisters whether she had read a story about a political candidate's bad behavior, and she asked where the article had appeared. "The New York Times," I said. "Oh, the Times," she said, making a brush-off gesture -- as if The New York Times were no more credible than the late, lamented Weekly World News.
But it's true that the country's major newspapers have missed some very big stories, and have gotten things wrong in major ways -- which is why everyone I know who's been tracking this election closely feels nervous about the real possibility that all the coverage we've been reading is simply wrong.
Newspapers are not the only ones vulnerable to this, but the process of gathering news to freeze it and print it once a day makes them more vulnerable, because we are no longer willing to give newspapers the time to be thoughtful and balanced.
In a way, the instant-news environment should make traditional newspapering more important than ever. I crave that authoritative voice, that objectivity that newspapers used to promise and still should. Slate surveyed its staff about a week ago and found that they were voting 55-1 for Obama. Granted, Slate doesn't pretend to be nonpartisan, but how can a staff that is weighted 55-1 for Obama give readers any kind of balanced look at McCain?
This Presidential election has highlighted some real and baffling divisions in this country, and addressing these divisions must be a priority for whoever our new President is. Red state/blue state is only a fraction of the story; the divisions have more to do with assumptions and expectations.
Internet-based media have led us (well, led me) to expect a landslide victory for Barack Obama -- but I can't help suspecting that this is because they're only communicating with those of us who are online.
What about the significant percentage of people in this country who aren't online, who don't get their news from the Internet, who aren't blogging and sending each other cool "Yes We Can" videos? Who is talking to them, who is counting them, and who is reporting their views?
It ought to be newspapers, I think. Newspapers seem to have spent most of the last five years trying to figure out how to compete online, and I understand that. But I also wonder whether they've forgotten about the people who don't live online, who would be, logically, the people who would really need newspapers.
If we wake up tomorrow morning to find that John McCain is the next President of the United States, it will represent a profound, mindboggling failure for online journalism. But it might be the best thing that ever happened for the newspaper business.