In early October I found myself scurrying out the front door a little earlier than usual so I could retrieve a pair of plastic bags, one blue, the other yellow, from my front lawn. Contained within were two newspapers—The New York Times, in the blue bag, and my local paper, The Star-Ledger, in the yellow. Their front pages confirmed rumors I had heard that the world was falling apart, or at least the portion of the world that deals with derivatives and subprime mortgages.
Newspapers—the responsible broadsheets anyway—have always served as my guide through the brambles of trivia and sensationalism. If somebody on television uses the word “panic” or “catastrophe,” I chalk it up to a bid for higher ratings and increased profitability. If a newspaper uses those words, I check to make sure I have duct tape, canned goods and bottled water in my basement.
As I tried to come to grips with the sober financial narratives spread out on my breakfast table, it occurred to me that I was engaged in an act that my children, or certainly their children, will have trouble understanding years from now. Why would anybody defy the predawn chill to fetch a sickly thin newspaper filled with accounts of events that were at least 10 or 12 hours old? Why not stay inside, flip on a handheld mobile device and find out what happened a minute ago? Pretty good question, I guess.
No civic-minded citizen needs to be told that newspapers are nearing their end days. All papers, great and small, are shedding jobs and cutting back coverage. My yellow-bag paper, The Star-Ledger, recently averted possible closure when hundreds of workers accepted modest buyout packages. The paper is expected to lose about $30 million this year, even though it is by far the largest and most important newspaper in one of the nation’s wealthiest states, New Jersey. The blue bag paper, The Times, has just discontinued having separate sections devoted to metropolitan news and sports coverage.
While the impending demise of print news surely has been discussed and bemoaned for some time now, I wonder how many of us realize that newspapers will take with them to their graves the very framework, culture, ethics and standards that have regulated news-gathering since the beginnings of mass media. Some may welcome this development, persuaded as they seem to be that newspapers are intellectually corrupt institutions devoted to either the destruction of American values or the suppression of truth. Or both.
Such critics no doubt are looking forward to the day when the last print newspaper rolls off the last printing press, for many seem to believe that journalism will be better off without the conceits and biases of elite newspaper editors and reporters who have distorted or covered up the truth in order to promote their political views. I suspect they will live to regret their contempt for oh-so-20th-century newspaper reporters. For without them and their standards—their obsessive emphasis on objectivity, their dogged search for, yes, facts; their determination to bring to light stories that governments seek to hide—our political and civic culture will be gravely diminished.
A wise editor once told me that opinion was cheap, while reporting was expensive. In the 20th century, news organizations spent freely if not always lavishly to cover wars, political campaigns, natural disasters, international summit meetings, royal weddings and abuses of the public payroll. In the 21st century, however, the cheaper option has become the new paradigm. Opinion rules. Attitude prevails. Notions of objectivity, fairness, balance and even decency were beginning to fade in the 1980s and 90s, but with the coming of age of the blogger, it is clear that expensive fact-gathering and educated analysis has given way to the inexpensive, look-at-me world of opinion-peddling.
All of which suggests a question: When newspapers no longer litter the lawns and doorsteps of American households, where will our opinion leaders obtain the facts and knowledge required to form intelligent arguments?
Perhaps that is just the kind of question an old-fashioned, 20th-century media type could be expected to ask. But that doesn’t make it less urgent, because if this year’s presidential election has offered us a peek into a post-newspaper world of campaign coverage, even the fiercest newspaper critic will soon pine for the days of reliable sources.
This year the Internet proved to be a convenient vehicle for vicious rumor-mongering, outright lies and loads of self-righteous assertions. But it offered precious little in terms of independent, vetted, verifiable, old-fashioned reporting. Of course, I am not referring to Web sites operated by newspapers. I have in mind Web sites that specialize in posting unverified rumors and bogus claims that would never have seen their way into print back when newspapers mattered.
Some argue that the Web should be celebrated for expanding the definition of news and for pursuing stories the old media, particularly newspapers, ignored. There is merit in that argument. But then again, the unfiltered, unedited Web was responsible for promulgating a thousand lies during the 2008 campaign, beginning with the “story” of Barack Obama’s secret life as a Muslim.
Obama’s more rabid foes delighted in using the tools available to them to circulate this falsehood. They were happy to note that such charges would never have made their way into any respectable newspaper.
They were absolutely right. Keep that in mind as our financial meltdown gives way to a prolonged recession, which in turn finishes off the noble institution known as the newspaper.