LINCOLN, Neb. - Other newspapermen may take junkets to Paris and New York. I get to go to romantic Lincoln, Nebraska.
My friend and veteran editorialist, Frank Partsch of the Omaha World-Herald, picks me up at the Omaha airport for the drive to Lincoln, where the Nebraska Press Association is meeting.
After dashing through DFW to make a connecting flight just in time, escalators and train ride and all, I get to take a deep breath and kick back for an hour with a friend. The horizon opens and the broad, undulating fields roll by under a cloudless sky. Decompression, thy name is Nebraska.
Geography is character. Like the landscape, the people here are open yet diffident, friendly yet holding something back to the casual eye. It occurs to me that the folks back in Arkansas who put together The Big Read, a statewide program to get everybody reading and talking about the same book this spring, couldn't have made a better pick than they did: the Great American Novel itself, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
My breath always does a sharp intake when I get to the last page and read that line about the dark rolling fields of the Republic in Nick Carraway's final lament for Gatsby, who'd gone East and remade himself in its image:
"He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."
The great thing about being asked to talk to a newspaper gathering, any newspaper gathering, big or little, East or West, is that you never have to change your opening line. The lede gets their attention every time. Like a doctor slowly emerging from the operating room to report on a patient's condition to the anxious family. Here's the latest (and oldest) bulletin on the health of American newspapers:
The newspaper business is dying.
And it's been dying at least since the 1920s. Radio was going to mean the death of newspapers. Who needed print anymore when you had airwaves? Newspapers were double-dead when television succeeded radio. Now that the Internet has succeeded television and radio, the hopelessly outdated newspaper is dying again.
It's enough to remind me of what a Yiddish scholar once said about that always-fading language: "Yiddish has been dying for 400 years now. God willing, may it continue to die for another 400 years."
One of the few good things about air travel is that it lets you catch up on your magazine reading. Consider a factoid or two gleaned from the current New Yorker, or maybe it was one a few weeks back. (They tend to pile up on me.) This issue had an article about the McClatchy newspaper chain's buying Knight Ridder, like a smaller fish swallowing a whale despite all the laws of Nature and probability.
It seems that the readership of newspapers fell faster between 1970 and 1990 - by 15 percent - than it has since. And the drop-off has been much less than in the audience for network news. While evening newspapers may have largely disappeared since the '60s, the circulation of morning papers has actually increased since 1980. By 60 percent. The Washington Post, even with falling print circulation, attracted more than 8 million readers to its Web site in February, an increase of almost 3 million over the same month last year.
In short, as I tell my aunts and uncles and the other old folks I knew as a child when they pop up in my dreams, "You're looking wonderful! Especially for someone who's dead."
How do newspapers not only continue to survive but thrive in this ever new, ever more competitive environment? Not by striving to be even more superficial than much of our competition on radio, television and the Web. First, it can't be done, And, second, it isn't worth doing. Which is where solid reporting (especially on state and local issues) and strong opinion pages come in.
There's a reason people speak of "the paper of record" rather than the television station or Web site of record.
The editorial page should be the soul of a newspaper. As a kind of amateur theologian of American editorial pages, I worry abut the state of a newspaper's soul when I read the kind of predictable editorial that never says anything, usually at length, or just follows a party line, kneejerk after kneejerk.
I tell the folks gathered here that if there is a single quality that distinguishes good editorial writing, it is the willingness to risk it. We can be so afraid of being proved wrong by events that, drawing back from judgment and taking refuge in the usual web of reservations and equivocations, we can never honestly feel we've been proved right, either.
Happily, there are editors out here who are still fighting the good fight with every issue of their county weekly or city daily. Despite all the premature obituaries for the American newspaper, the patient is alive - and kicking. The dark fields of the Republic roll on under the night.