- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

Those of us who work in the media know this is a highly competitive industry, whether we work in print, broadcast or, as we all settle in with the 21st century, the Internet. The competition within our profession inherently calls for intramural play, with reporters and columnists fighting for inches at their own newspapers like athletes vying for minutes on the basketball court. But we also have to compete with news organs within the same market.

The competition has led to an untold number of press machines going silent, especially those that used to roll out evening newspapers (like my former employer, The Washington Star.) As circulation (and sometimes mergers) go, so goes the industry. “Circulation began dropping at the rate of 1 percent every year from 1990 to 2002,” according to journalism.org, which helps publish the online version of the annual State of the Media Report. “By 2002, weekday circulation of U.S. newspapers had dropped 11 percent in 12 years.”

Those should have been discomfiting prospects for those of us whose livelihood is moving news and information from its source or sources and spreading it to the masses. The latest industry trend that began in 1990 should make us just a little more nervous. The opening line alone gave me the creeps: “Is the newspaper industry dying?” Fortunately, the authors responded immediately with, “Not now.”

Still, the bottom line isn’t good news. “On an average day,” the authors said, “roughly 51 million people still buy a newspaper, and 124 million in all still read one… But the print newspaper is unquestionably ailing. Circulation is declining. Advertising is flat. As Warren Buffett said at his annual investor’s meeting in May 2006 newspapers appear to have entered a period of ‘protracted decline.’ ”

The old-school media — i.e. newspapers, magazines, digests, even encyclopedias — face an insidious threat. It is called illiteracy.

If people cannot read, what will become of newspapers and magazines? If people cannot read, what will become of the small Asian, black and Latino newspapers that thrive on niche marketing?

And, more importantly, what will happen if people simply do not want to read? There’s much that can be lost in translation, and Americans used to understand that.

We know that miners of three generations ago needn’t be literate to tunnel the depths of the Appalachians for coal or that slaves needn’t be literate to slog the indigo plantations in the Low Country. And we know that domestic workers — who minded the sucklings and tended to the whims and needs of the upper classes — needn’t be literate to empty the honey buckets.

But somewhere between “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Bill Cosby Show” Americans both made and broke a promise to assure that the next generation would be better educated than the last.

America now is stuck between the bedrock of educational progress and the hard reality of ignorance. Consider, for one example, the cold fact released just the other day that 36 percent of residents of the nation’s capital age 16 and above are functionally illiterate. We can quibble about semantics and the very term functionally illiterate. But if you’re reading these and other words in Any Newspaper, USA, you probably know the difference between a functioning alcoholic and a drunkard (think beauty queen Tara Conner, who tonight hands over her tarnished Miss USA crown).

Functioning illiterates are all around. They work in factories and school houses, on Wall Street and in Hollywood. They could be the seasonal worker at a nearby farm or handling baggage at the airport. They could be po’ (unable to buy an “o” and “r” to complete the word, as respected columnist Clarence Page likes to say) or they could come from wealthier roots. Illiteracy, which is synonymous with ignorance, isn’t a race or class issue, and it cuts across religions, too.

Yet unlike some other issues (with, perhaps, the exception of ill health) nothing stunts the growth of an individual, community or nation like illiteracy. And those of us who work in the print media owe it special attention.

The war on terror and so-called Islamofacism are important. Whether Iran has nukes is important as well. So are presidential prerogatives and global warming. All are worthy of front-page coverage in the big scheme of things. But illiteracy is, too.

Reading and writing English are education fundamentals — and more so as our legal and illegal immigration numbers swell.

How much longer will the newspaper industry survive if we continue to churn out young adults who can’t even fill out a job application, read the bus routes to take a pre-employment drug test or carry out a simple task like reading the employee handbook?

Sure, jobs for picking cotton and grapes, and pushing brooms and coal-mine carts are still part of the American jobscape. And the media take their share of hits for cultural norms and woes, in addition to yellow journalism and one-note scripture (columnists who write week in and out on the same topic; to which I plead guilty on education).

With circulation numbers decreasing and ad dollars flat, though, I think it’s time we heed Mr. Buffett and adopt a new mantra: All readers are our friends.

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