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Pyle: Newspapers can't blame single mothers for their own failures

Published October 4, 2013 6:11 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there'll be no blaming mother today!" — Niles Crane, "Frasier"

This is the paragraph that a lot of journalists were talking, writing and slapping their foreheads about last week. You might as well have to suffer through it, too.

"Indeed, newspapers still can sell themselves to traditional households — two-parent families involved with their children, schools, churches, sports, civic groups, and such. But newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they're living in, and couldn't afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read. And such households constitute a rising share of the population."

Thus says Chris Powell, managing editor of The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Conn. It is lifted — though not, I would argue, out of context — from his column of Sept. 28.

The general woe expressed is not so different from what you've been reading in and about your own Salt Lake Tribune, which recently went through another round of job losses, one that reached all the way up to the top and brought the news staff to 60 percent of what it was in 2005.

But at least we are not blaming our troubles on some ugly, unfounded stereotype of the changes — though changes there be — in demographics.

Now, far be it from me to complain about a newspaper columnist saying incendiary things in order to make a larger point. And poverty, illiteracy and inequality do matter, especially in public schools. But the stats I have been able to locate (thanks in part to Slate, The Huffington Post, et al.) suggest that Powell is all wet. If not downright mean.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation's KidsCount website says that single-parent households nationally have been relatively stable over the past five years. Nationally, it's about 35 percent of all kids. In Connecticut, it's a little less (32 percent). And in Utah, it's a rock-bottom 21 percent. So, even if Powell were right about Connecticut, Utah newspapers can't use the same excuse.

Poverty is up everywhere, mostly due to the recession. But the welfare client load nationally is half — half! — what it was when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich ended welfare as we knew it. Even the adult illiteracy rate has been parked pretty firmly at 14 percent over the last decade or more.

Powell is trying not to blame the Internet for his, and everyone else's, newspaper horror stories. Maybe because he realizes, deep down, that the Internet is the future (if not the present) and he doesn't want to unnecessarily rile his new digital overlords.

Where Powell has this absolutely backwards is that, if any demographic can be blamed for our decline, it is not the poor, but the rich and the near-rich.

The two-parent family that's busy with kids, church, etc., the one Powell looks to as The Good Ol' Days, is still there. But they are so busy with kids, church, etc., that they have little time to relax with ink-on-dead-trees publications.

They are also affluent enough to be leading the transition from getting their news in print to getting it on laptops, tablets and smart phones. Most newspapers — including Powell's, and mine — are trying to follow those paths, with varying degrees of skill and success. It's just that few of us have figured out how to sell enough advertising, subscriptions, or both, to pay the freight.

One tip for Brother Powell. If you put links in the online version of your columns, as I and an increasing number of columnists do, you have to look up the facts and stats you need to back up your arguments. If you had done that, you might not be the least admired man in our profession this week.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, still has a job, in large part, because Vern Anderson, editorial page editor for the last decade, retired last week. Stay cool, old buddy.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate