Basking in the decadent glory of print’s decline

I don’t want newspapers to go away because I will always love them. But how much more watered down and hollowed out do they have to become before the hardiest print defenders stop deluding themselves about the real reasons for their demise?

How much longer will they blame the Internet, mock the efforts of those who are trying to refashion journalism on the Web, and ridicule those terrible bloggers, aggregators and digital creative types who apparently are guilty of nothing less than intellectual debauchery?

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has been taken to task before for defending the work of rank-and-file journalists, and most recently, for urging newspapers to build a pay wall and consider not posting print material on their Web sites. I generally agreed with him on the former and shook my head at his latter idea.

Now he’s totally jumped the shark from nuanced, thoughtful writing on these subjects to reignite a phantom clash between bloggers vs. journalists. He’s not the first to launch the following ad hominem attack (halfway down in this link, after much rambling about the Washington Redskins):

“I can’t imagine a world (or an internet) without the raw factual material that newspapers provide every day, but I guess the bloggers don’t really care about any of that. They’re mostly about themselves and their opinions, with little thought given to where they’re getting their basic facts.”

Oh yes, here’s another tiresome bloggers-as-monolith screed. Which bloggers? What are they blogging about? Why don’t they care? We don’t know, because then Farhi’s off fielding more readers’ questions about the Redskins — talk about a lost cause! This is how online chats go.

But Farhi’s shots are more than cheap. They’re reflective of the deep denial of so many still bound up in the cult of print. Print good, bloggers bad. Either you’re with newspapers or you’re with the “digital barbarians.” If we don’t save newspapers, democracy will die.

I’m fed up with digital triumphalists who like to kick print when it’s down, who can’t wait for it to slip into further irrelevance. They have been tone-deaf to the plight of thousands of people whose livelihoods have been dashed because leaders of the newspaper industry failed to prepare for the future.

But to suggest that the fate of self-government is bound up with newspapers is to ignore what’s been happening (to both) for several decades:

“Once the individual papers started getting gobbled up by the chains and the chains went public, Wall Street wanted profit over journalism and the business got a one-way ticket to Palookaville. This is not new. How many monastic scribes lost their jobs when Gutenberg started cranking up his press?

“How many typesetters lost their jobs when offset presses came along? This has been coming on for a long time. And while all these CEOs of the big chains were talking about how you can’t cut your way to profitability, they kept cutting. When there was no more fat, they cut into muscle and then bone. And what did it get them?”

Still, desperate, hair-brained schemes, such as bringing in the heavy hand of government to prop up newspapers, stubbornly persist. These actions will not stop the continued decline of print, which is nothing I feel good about.

It’s necessary to examine what’s being lost because reviving the news cannot take place without this understanding. But the ceaseless, hyperbolic hand-wringing that only newspapers — instead of journalism — can provide the necessary checks on government is tragic and misplaced:

“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of this healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail.”

For the quarter-century I was in newspapers, the journalism that I and many others influenced by Watergate idealized dwindled, replaced with lifestyle and celebrity fluff that hardly serves exalted notions of democracy. As a sportswriter, I knew I was helping readers escape the duties of citizenship.

I’m skeptical about the purported renewal of democracy on the Web, but that comes more from my pessimism about our political system. And I am extremely concerned about the fate of reading and cognitive development among the Web generation. But those are topics for another time.

What I find so sad about these newspaper laments is that the hard-headed realism that journalists supposedly possess has been completely abandoned for treacly sentiment and arrogance. As has been said often before, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and the newsroom-on-a-pedestal that’s being conjured up now never really existed. While I do terribly miss the camaraderie I enjoyed with former colleagues, I never worked in such a place.

Not long ago I finished reading “The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald-Tribune,” an engrossing account of a great, but flawed newspaper that went by the wayside in 1966. Its fate was sealed by rancorous newspaper strikes and poor family-run ownership. Like many newspapers, it often did great public service journalism (and employed the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin at the end).

But it was also guilty of lacking a backbone on many other topics, worried about offending its advertisers and fiercely loyal to its moderate Republican political ideology. In the immediate post-World War II years the Herald-Tribune fatally missed the opportunity to expand its reader base by ceding the vastly-growing suburbs to The New York Times.

This was a full 30 years before the advent of the Web. And while newspapers weren’t facing the levels of extinction they do today, Ben Bagdikian’s assessment, first delivered the same year I got into the business, predicted what complacency and monopoly power could yield. He envisioned that one-way ticket to Palookaville before most everybody.

Like many former newspaper journalists and as a proud product of print culture, I am also wistful of what’s fading away. My former newspaper is giving up the ghost in astonishing fashion, which actually has made it easier to shed the last layers of nostalgia I’ve held for it.

It’s also far too easy to be snarky and dismissive of what’s being attempted to follow newspaper journalism. Say what you will about Arianna Huffington and cohorts (and I’ve said plenty about her), they’re not the problem here. Some of their solutions are knuckle-headed, but they’re doing much more than their fiercest critics, who are content to take potshots from the bleachers.

What are these print Cassandras doing to ensure the vitality of journalism in the digital age? Instead of lending their time and talents to invigorate a profession they insist is vital to democracy, they’d rather defiantly (and selfishly) go down with the ship. I just wish they would admit that.

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3 thoughts on “Basking in the decadent glory of print’s decline

  1. I agree, mostly. But we differ on one key point: In my now 16-year career, I have managed to get two state laws changed, catch an outgoing governor in a lie so big that his last official act was to correct it, bring to light several public policy ideas that would have cost taxpayers millions for a politico’s pet project and, along the way, raised attention to some of society’s voiceless, like foster kids, the elderly rural poor and even homeless animals.

    What I’m saying is, there is a direct link between journalism and democracy. Maybe in my years I’ve remained idealistic about that, but I see it work every day. And I do fear that loss more than a single job or a single newspaper.

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  2. I do understand the power of good public service journalism. I just wish the people bemoaning what’s happening to newspapers would focus some of their attention and lend their expertise and passion to making journalism better on the Web.

    My feeling is if you’re going to gripe about what’s being lost, then you’ve got an obligation to salvage what’s possible and adapt it to a medium where so many more people increasingly are getting their news.

    Otherwise, I’ve had enough of the same tired laments. They don’t solve the problem, and ignore the fact that it’s about the journalism, and not the method of delivery.

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  3. I had suggested to one journalist, who wrote an article similar to this on his blog, that the newspapers should do a survey to find out what the people want in their news. I am not talking about just questions that have yes and no answers. I am talking about questions about what people see wrong with the articles, policy, stuff along these lines. They will probably have to do some changing and be sincere in the change. Actions do speak louder than words.

    The broadcast news could do this too.

    This is just my suggestion

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