As I mark my fiftieth year in the craft of journalism may I be excused for letting loose a small raspberry at the flood of handwringing going on over The Decline of the American Daily Newspaper.
What do you expect from an industry that has outdone Detroit in wasting its franchise? The hard historical fact of life is that many great American news titles ended up being owned by absentees and operated by cretins who thought they were manufacturing a product when in fact journalism, in whatever format, is and always has been a service.
There is a difference. In manufacturing, say widgets, if you can make the same number of widgets with fewer workers and a leaner mix of raw materials the productivity gain will translate into expanded profits. But if one starts watering down a service with fewer providers, with stingier resources, and empty information calories instead of the news nourishment consumers want, well then one deserves what one gets.
So when once-great newspapers (and I count the Washington Post among them) systematically empty their newsroom of truly first-class news gatherers, and when the product that results is the work of lower-wage naifs who lack sources and perspective, who confuse skepticism with partisanship, who substitute snark for insight, then what in the pluperfect hell does management expect to happen? Why should advertisers spend their dollars pitching to a room that is rapidly emptying of potential customers?
How we came to forget this truth that predates the founding of our Republic I cannot say. Certainly 23-year-old Benjamin Franklin knew the difference when he bought the weakest of the eight weekly colonial newspapers exactly 280 years ago. The Pennsylvania Gazette he took over serialized boring novels, cribbed old articles from London magazines, and had become the political tool of one of the factions of the day. By the time Franklin was finished it boasted the largest circulation and a readership that stretched from Charleston to Boston — and two full pages of paid advertising. What the new Gazette provided was news that Americans had to have, news of ships arriving and leaving, of fires, disasters, and Indian raids, but also of business deals, goods being traded, and of course of politics, lots of politics. He printed both sides of disputes but took sides with arguments that carried the now forgotten word — authority. Readers argued with him but never questioned his integrity.
In my time I worked for four daily news organizations and four major newsmagazines of some repute. Of the dailies, two don’t exist at all, one is bleeding to death, and the fourth has moved to a new format altogether. Of the magazines, one has vanished, two have become irrelevancies and the fourth has deteriorated into a shill for its owner’s other media interests. The universal response of managements and their “consolidations and restructuring” has merely added to the hemorrhaging of a patient already near bled to death.
Good riddance, say I. And goodbye to the Post and a host of other dailies elsewhere if they continue to ladle out the thin gruel they have been serving us with injunctions that we should be grateful. At the same time it also is true that compared with the America where I began my labors way back then, today there actually is available more hard news, more authoritative detail, more sophisticated analysis on a whole range of global issues than the big dailies were able to provide with their once vaunted foreign services and big Washington bureaus. It’s called the Internet.
While there is a lot of gibberish among the blogs and special pleading websites, there also is a host of very fine information services that offer analysis, expertise, impartiality, and (oh, joy) authority on areas from intelligence, foreign policy, the environment, politics, culture and the arts, science and health, to almost any topic that interests you. Just go on line and there it is, much of it in real time and without the filter of this new generation of broadcast and print news providers who have trouble naming the line of succession of American presidents from Roosevelt to Obama without using their fingers.
There is bad news in the midst of this good news. If you cling to the myth that a free and democratic society depends on all citizens having equal access to news from the public arena the development of a two-tier information system should cause concern. For while the Internet information services are easily accessible they are not free, indeed some cost thousands of dollars a year both in subscriptions and downloading fees. Those who cannot afford to be without the raw ingredients of reality will find the money somewhere; the vast number of people may have to do without.
But from where I sit that vast number of people apparently can’t tell the difference between what they used to get and what is now thrown onto their doorstep in the morning or blared out from their favorite television chatter show. Information has morphed into entertainment and comforting prejudices edge aside often unpleasant reality.
The confusion and uncertainty that so frightens us today is an inescapable consequence. We get what we deserve.