Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Readers, R.I.P.?

By Shawn Healy
James Vesely of the Seattle Times penned a provocative piece that ran in yesterday's edition of the paper tackling the question that is wracking news rooms across the country: how to perpetuate professional journalism when the age-old model is outdated, and arguably, broken? His answers are by no means simple, but he does offer an affirmative solution, namely to maintain reporting with integrity, verifying sources, and standing as the "enemy of rumor and a citizen of its place." Blogs, by the way, are newspapers' foil (this one excepted).

He suggests that media consolidation will continue, but maintains a place for local papers without competition. Movement away from corporate control and toward private ownership may represent another step in the right direction, especially if profit margin is not at the top of these new owners' lists. Newspapers are nothing less than bulwarks of democracy, and the hope is that wealthy philanthropists will make investments in dailies for the sake our very civic fabric.

Vesely is right to note that the "First Amendment will not provide (reporters) with a paycheck," nor is it an effective "business model." However, his hypothesis that readers are merely shifting to online sources may be a bit optimistic.

The National Endowment for the Arts released a 99-page study today suggesting that Americans are reading less and less on a daily basis. Among the troublesome findings were a 7% drop in voluntary book reading in the vital 18-24 demographic, meaning nearly half of this age group never reads for fun. The average person between the ages of 15 and 24 spends 2.5 hours before the TV, but a mere 7 minutes reading! Overall, despite the explosive growth of Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, book sales have declined 14% since 1985.

This correlates with a dramatic drop in reading comprehension even among college graduates. Proficiency is equivalent to reading a daily newspaper, the reason I decided to tie these two developments together. Lack of proficiency impedes one's abilities to perform daily tasks at the workplace, not to mention participate in our democracy. The study finds that those who read for pleasure are more apt to have extensive social lives, to vote and be politically active, participate in the arts and cultural affairs, and volunteer.

In the end, the things that we continually lament about, namely low voter turnout and the decline of political awareness and more general civic engagement can be attributed to a culture and educational system that is failing to teach our young people the reading habits they need to thrive in the adult world. The key is to find a hook where kids are introduced to reading through a subject of interest to them. Daily, or at least weekly attention to current events in the classroom is also important, and their remains no better purveyor of this information than a local or national newspaper, many of them available free of charge as newspapers flair desperately for new readers.

I am admittedly more of an online newspaper reader myself, for it enables me to peruse the major dailies across the country at once, and to select articles more interesting to me personally. I concur with Vesely that there remains a place for good journalism, even as its print form fades to the dustbin of history. Moreover, I am confident that the business model will adapt to changing times, so longer as willing readers remain. The key is to find a way to focus young people on the task at hand, for reading is often impeded by television watching, video games, instant messages, and other computer usage. I, too, am guilty of this charge, and in this case, am left without an answer to the "noise" that surrounds us from every angle.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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