Newspapers in the flower bed

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Aug 29, 2006 12:00 AM

The Dallas Morning News -- "Texas' Leading Newspaper," as it called itself when I went to work there in 1973 -- is downsizing. Oh, is it ever! Something like a fifth of the newsroom is destined for the trash heap, either through buyouts or, if need be, the ax, applied without remorse to the requisite number of employee necks.

It's a pretty grim landmark in Dallas history -- one The News itself helped engineer. In the '70s, the parent company "went public," handing investors partial oversight of business decisions formerly reserved for management. Then the paper decided to further a newfound commitment to "cultural diversity" and "progressive" politics by boring its customers to death. When not hacking them off. But that's another story.

What I -- a 5-year The News retiree -- think we might presently want to ponder is reality. No modern newspaper is managing with any great success to evade the consequences of the technological revolution. Daily newspaper circulation in 2005 fell by 2.6 percent, newspaper stocks by an average of 20 percent. Print advertising revenues are fundamentally stagnant.

When fewer and fewer Americans want a newspaper on their doorsteps on account of sheer indifference to the product, or zeal for scouring the Internet for news, the ordinary newspaper publisher begins to feel like a buggy-whip manufacturer in Henry Ford's Detroit.

Time was when the daily newspaper was our secular Bible -- to swear by or swear at. Nearly half a century ago, as a college freshman with aspirations to the law, not journalism, I read four newspapers a day. It was what one did in order to stay informed. No more. One can, but doesn't have to, scale a mountain of newsprint to stay informed. There's the Internet now: faster, fuller, more diverse than any newspaper can aspire to be. And you don't have to pick it up on the sidewalk during a rainstorm.

Mark you, I didn't say the new state of affairs was an unalloyed good. We relics of the stick shift and 25-cent-beer era tend to like our papers. My wife and I subscribe to four, including The Dallas News. We think there's nothing like tackling that newsprint mountain to see what the sharp-eyed editors have prepared for us. It is, in our experience, a deeper, more reliable way of news-searching than just logging on to a blog or bulletin board or whatever (vehicles of wisdom that get their ideas from the papers, if you want the truth).

Look, you might not admire all the editors, but the great majority are pros. Their talent is what we used to call "news judgment." Even the editors who make you maddest seem to possess it. Nor is a newspaper other than a wonderful thing to hold and fold and clip and snip; a tangible -- tangible, I emphasize -- record to consult and reconsult, sometimes to frame, sometimes to tuck away in a book or album.

So no one cares anymore? I would not venture any such thing. Our newspapers are not going away. Those that are wise -- I can hope The Dallas News falls in that category, though I'm from Missouri and will have to see the hard evidence -- will survive and, in a different way, flourish, as tellers of complicated stories, especially complicated local ones. (Save for the great national rags, like my Wall Street Journal.)

A goodly number -- some papers are doing it already -- will flourish by adapting to the competition, proving, it may be, how a good newspaper with good blogs will produce greatness.

In all of which there is something to like, something to root for. Nothing stays still. Nothing can. The perpetual challenge is to hold on to the good while figuring out how to put change to useful account. Meanwhile, the semi-self-inflicted tribulations of The Dallas Morning News and its suffering staff -- pros, good people, newspaper people -- go on and on, and the heart weeps for and with these folk.

Wordsworth's sonnet on the extinction of the Venetian Republic comes to mind:

Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is pass'd away.