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The young abandon newspapers to their peril

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Cartoon by Milt Priggee

I teach tax and immigration law to students in Philadelphia. Sometimes I'll see a relevant story in the local paper, and I'll ask in class, "Anyone see that front page story in the Inquirer that was on the very topic we are discussing?" And then I'll look at blank faces.

Not a single person in a class of upwardly mobile college graduates in the city of Philadelphia has seen a story relevant to their professional interest on the front page of that city's only non-tabloid daily newspaper. I realize now that's because young people simply don't read newspapers at all. And they admit it.

They claim to get their news on-line. And they may believe they do. But I don't buy it because, with all due respect to the younger generation, they don't seem to know anything.

This is purely subjective and anecdotal, but it seems to me that earlier in my career, 15, 20, 25 or more years ago, I got more pushback from my students. Students back then seemed more opinionated, perhaps because on average they had more information and knowledge of current events on which to base opinions.

Looking at a news website is not the same thing as reading a newspaper. You only click on an item if the headline happens to interest you. But reading a newspaper allows you to begin reading an article, and then move on quickly if it's not of interest. And every newspaper reader knows the experience and pleasure of encountering news items on unexpected topics that turn out to be both interesting and informative.

I've actually had young college graduates tell me seriously that they rely on Jon Stewart's Daily Show on the Comedy Channel for their news. Even Jon Stewart describes that program as a 'fake' news show.

I was recently back at Oberlin College for my 40th college reunion. I learned that the college was so concerned about student abandonment of newspapers that it had arranged a bulk subscription to the New York Times, through a graduate who worked in that paper's circulation department, for free distribution to students. The New York Times was made available to be picked up for free at various convenient locations on campus.

There was just one problem. The students wouldn't pick up the free paper. It just sat there in stacks. And the college remains concerned that for all the idealism and ambition of its students, they don't seem to know much about what's happening in the world.

Clicking on links on a news website is not like reading a newspaper because there's so much information on-line that only the links already of interest get clicked. That's like political conservatives only going to Fox News for their news, or liberals relying only on MSNBC. And it may be another contributing factor to the political polarization of America, each side oblivious to the concerns of the other.

Maybe it's because more and more people don't know anything, that candidates for political office can draw a following even though they don't know anything. Voters can identify with the candidates who, like them, don't read newspapers or know anything. I'm thinking Sarah Palin here, and Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. Those happen to be Republicans, but I concede that some Democratic politicians belong in this category, too.

Newspapers are a filter for the tremendous volume of news available on-line now. Whether it's the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Boston Globe, newspapers tell us what their editors and reporters think is important and what we need to know.

It's fashionable now to say we want our news unfiltered. But too often that means we don't find what we need to know because it's too difficult, like trying to drink from a fire hose.

What's the future of America, of democracy, and of the increasingly complicated world without newspapers and a well-informed public?

Not good.

- Jan Ting is a professor of law at Temple University's Beasley School of Law, and a former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice (jaunting@temple.edu).

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