It was a simple calculation: If I could not make history, I wanted to have a front-row seat to watch it unfold. I would be a newspaperman. What is more interesting to me is that I made that calculation when I was just 11 years old.
After more than 50 years, I am as much in love with newspapers as I was then. But alas, my love is in failing health.
One after the other, the great newspapers are stumbling; and some have fallen, never to get up again. The Boston Globe is on life support, as are many of the titles of the Tribune Group and The McClatchy Company. Two of the country’s most revered titles, The Washington Post and The New York Times are losing money. The venerable Christian Science Monitor and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer have ceased daily print publication and now haunt the Web. Gone is The Rocky Mountain News.
Newspaper closures are not new, but this time the sickness is pandemic. Long gone are titles like The New York Mirror, The New York World-Telegram, The New York Herald Tribune, The Washington Times-Herald, The Baltimore News-American, The Chicago Daily News, The Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Star and hundreds of others.
The first great infection was from the impact of television on afternoon newspapers. That changed the whole pattern of newspaper reading. No longer did the newspaper fill the evening hours, television did. Ironically H.L. Mencken, maybe the greatest newspaperman, worried about the health of morning newspapers in a time when evening papers dominated the market.
Television also swept away the great magazines like Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers.
The message here is clear: Few survive, despite long wars of attrition, and despite the best efforts and deep pockets of some publishers.
I am sure that the World Wide Web will grow into its mission as the substitute carrier of the news. But it has a long way to go before it reaches the basic standards of the lowliest daily newspaper.
First, the Web lacks a viable business model. It costs money to maintain a worldwide system of bureaus and correspondents. Then the Web has to find discipline. Its writers need to learn their trade–with respect to the veracity and provenance of both their news and the news on which their opinion is based. The Web also needs an appellate procedure. With a newspaper you can complain to the editor, the publisher and even, in some cases, the ombudsman. Also you can sue. If you are libeled on the Web, it is an indelible stain. So far among the millions of web wannabes only Slate, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast are showing the way it might be.
For the rest, the Web needs editors. These are the men and women who keep the standards in newspapers, verify the doubtful facts, cut the indulgent writing, and save writers from the humiliation of their own mistakes. The unseen hand of the copy desk is what makes newspaper journalism worthwhile and saves the wretches who write.
For news, neither television nor radio has supplanted the newspaper. They are too ephemeral, too transitory and too inefficient to deal with a complex world. Even at this time, the heavy lifting is still being done by newspapers– newspapers with reduced staffs and demoralized employees.
The production of a daily newspaper is a daily miracle. It involves many disciplines, sometimes many unions, in a management structure that is more horizontal than vertical. The publisher is nominally in charge, but so is the editor, the advertising manager, the printing foreman and the mailing supervisor. In fact, it is the undertaking that is in charge day after day.
The newspaper, especially a big metropolitan newspaper, is akin to a steam locomotive: a great and beautiful beast. In the old days, I loved the clack of typewriters, the smell of ink (it has been reformulated since then), the industrial-scale paper loading, and the tremor when the presses, deep in the bowels of the building, started up. We had pulled it off again.
And I loved the denizens of the newsroom, whether in Harare, London, New York, Baltimore or Washington–my journalistic ports of call. Underpaid sentimentalists posing as cynics all.
I wish the newspaper business well, even as the fever rages. It kept its bargain with me.