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Decline of the dailies

Amidst the failures of banks and the possible collapse of the auto industry, the dramatic decline of newspapers in this country isn't getting much ink.

The big newspapers are in trouble, and I am part of the problem.

Instead of subscribing to one daily newspaper and waiting by the mailbox for it to arrive, I prefer to read about a dozen newspapers online.

I pay absolutely nothing for the news, and it is available as early as I want to get out of bed in the morning to start the coffee.

In addition to the online versions of newspapers, there are dozens of internet-only websites that are updated as quickly as the news happens.

Not only do we have around-the-clock television news, but a true news junkie can now follow world events on the computer second-by-second.

Remember the days of one daily newspaper per household? Of fighting over the sports section? Of three channels of national news limited to one-half hour per day?

At first glance, it appears that we are much richer in information now than we were in those days. We must be better informed than we ever were before.

I have my doubts.

At the café the other day, I picked up a copy of an area newspaper, the "dead tree" edition, as they call it.

I was surprised at how much I had missed that morning. Viewing a newspaper online is a different experience than holding a newspaper in your hands.

Online, you only see the headlines. You must click on them to get the entire story. That means waiting a little bit, depending upon the speed of your connection. So, I just skip most stories unless there is one that looks really juicy.

At the café, however, I was looking for something to do while waiting for my burger. So, my eyes wondered into the content of stories which might not have otherwise interested me.

I browsed through entire long articles which I would have overlooked if I had seen them on the computer screen.

Back when we awaited the arrival of the daily paper in the mailbox, news was short. We devoured all of it. We fought over the good sections. And we read a great variety of stories, even many that only interested us because we were bored.

My grandmother used to lay old newspapers out on her kitchen floor so the men wouldn't track mud on the linoleum. Many times, I walked into her house, saw an article on the floor that I hadn't caught the first time and spent the next half hour on my hands and knees catching up on the news.

When Peter Jennings came on for the evening news at Grandpa and Grandma's, everything stopped. We all listened to the same news and discussed it during the commercials.

Now, we drown in news. CNN plays 24 hours per day whether there's anything to report or not.

You can easily select your own tilt to news. If you tilt to the right, you can watch the Neanderthals at FOX. If you tilt to the left, you can watch the commies at MSMBC. If you're just plain cranky, you can watch Lou Dobbs.

Online, you can be even fussier. You can limit your news consumption to those who agree with you completely. Out of the thousands of bloggers, you are sure to find 50 or so who share your prejudices and filter the news for you.

I wouldn't go back to the old days of kneeling on the kitchen floor, but the present-day avalanche of news and commentary doesn't mean we're better informed.

In fact, I think my daily news dosage was more balanced when I read every bit of a single daily paper than it is today where I tend to pick and choose articles from news sources which I know will tickle my prejudices.

Web-based commentators love to gloat at the decline and possible demise of the great newspapers. To be fair, the news bloggers are bitter that the newspapers were slow to take online reporting seriously.

But for whatever its faults, when the old-style dead tree daily newspaper goes the way of the horse and buggy, everybody stands to lose.