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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


 Newspapers are in trouble all across America.  The latest ax to fall is in New Orleans where The Times-Picayune will cut back to publishing three days a week. The reason is simple economics.  Since Katrina in 2005, The Times-Picayune daily circulation has dropped by half, from 261,000 subscriptions to a current low of 132,000. New Orleans will soon become the biggest city in America without a daily newspaper.  Other cities have announced the same trend, including Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as three cities in Alabama ““Mobile, Huntsville and Birmingham.  So readers will be flocking to the internet, right? Well, that depends.

All of these papers, and more to follow will beef up their web editions of the daily publications, as they cut down on, or shut down altogether, the daily delivery of an actual physical newspaper. This, of course, saves considerable daily fixed overhead costs with the reduction or elimination of the processing, printing and distribution of the current form of delivery.

I am amazed that my daily New York Times can be printed in Houston, close to midnight and be sitting in my Baton Rouge driveway by 6 am. The internet makes this possible. But the paper continues to lose money, and my cost to receive this and other papers goes up regularly.  The Internet also makes it possible to “click” on a screen and read a story posted from anywhere in the world almost immediately.

But I’m old school when it comes to reading the news. I like to sit back with a morning coffee and have the paper in hand.  I mark it up for possible future reference, tear out a photo now and then to send to a friend, and set aside the crossword puzzles for my wife.  But I suppose I can learn to adapt and gather the same information over the internet and print out what I want to either keep or forward by email to someone with whom I want to share.  And so can anyone. That is, if they have access to the web.

Losing a daily newspaper in any community is a real setback.  But those who want and need the news will find ways to adapt. That is, if they have access to the web.

And this is what’s most troubling about the demise of the Picayune and other daily newspapers.  Government in many parts of the country, particularly in the Picayune’s home state of Louisiana, has been slow to respond with adequate plans for making the web available to  all of its citizens.

Last week, The New York Times published a front page story bemoaning the demise of the Times Picayune, pointing out that 36% of residents in New Orleans do not have access to the internet in their homes. There is even less access in many of the Louisiana’s more rural areas.

In fact, a new report from The National Telecommunications & Information Administration ““ Digital Nation — says that about one-third of U.S. households still lack a broadband internet connection. Furthermore, 5% to 10% of Americans only have access to internet services that are too slow to even support a basic set of online functions, such as downloading Web pages, photos or videos.

What so few elected officials seem to grasp is the fact that the lack of internet access is widening the educational gap between the haves and the have nots.  Kids in homes without internet access are continuing to fall behind as the web becomes an increasingly essential educational tool. Students with internet availability at home have a significant homework and general learning advantage over the child who has no such access.

In my home state of Louisiana, the legislature just completed its regular 60 day session.  Even though Louisiana continues to rank at the bottom of most educational attainment lists, the words “internet access” were not spoken once by any state official during the session. The internet today is every bit as important as telephones were 50 years ago.  Back then, having a telephone was looked on as a right.  Today access to the internet is considered a privilege in many states — yet the lack of internet access it is the single biggest obstacle preventing less fortunate kids from competing.

In a number of progressive school districts around the country, computers track each student’s performance. If a kid gets a “D” or “F” on a test, the school’s computer generates an email to inform the parents so they can act accordingly. Modern educational strategies include seeing that every elementary school student has a computer. In India, innovative school leaders are making $35 touch screen tablet computers available to students, and many businesses are helping to fund such programs.

Computers have become a necessary way of life all over the world. But the advantage of having a computer is severely limited if access to the web is not available. The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have a national policy to promote high speed broadband. A number of European countries are making the web available to all of its citizens. The Supreme Court in France recently ruled that internet access is a basic right, and there is a push at the United Nations to do the same. Finland recently became the first country to actually declare broadband Internet access a legal right. Laura Vilkkonen, the legislative counselor for Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications says, “We think it’s something you cannot live without in modern society. Like banking services or water or electricity, you need Internet connection.”

Here’s the point.  Our legislatures spend months, even years, talking about testing teachers, abolishing school boards, and new ways to grade students. But none of these issues are nearly as important as ensuring that all students have the tools necessary to be competitive.

Internet availability has become not just another way to learn. It has become a critical component in the learning process. And when some kids have it, and others do not, the attainment divide continues to grow. Some kids prosper, others lag behind. Until our politicians realize this, the U.S., and particularly my home state of Louisiana will be little more than a third world nation when it comes to providing competitive learning opportunities.

We’ll survive with reading a hard copy of the Times Picayune only three days a week.  But without round-the-clock internet access, over one third of our kids will drift further behind, and a large part of American’s population will become functionally illiterate.  Our kids, and our nation as a whole, deserve better.


In the U.S., if we are serious about equality of opportunity, access to the Internet could be strongly defended as a human right”¦” Jerry Lanier, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the nation.  You can read all is past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 AM till 11 AM, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at  http://www.jimbrownla.com.


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