The Vanishing Newspaper

Posted: May 15, 2009 12:01 AM
The Vanishing Newspaper

Kipling thought it a test of manhood if you could keep your head while others all about you are losing theirs. On the other hand, you just may not understand the situation. Which is the message I keep getting from my more disheartened, and often enough unemployed, colleagues in the editorial writing business.

Newspapers may have survived many a crisis, but we're regularly told that this one is different. This crisis is not only economic but cultural, technological, generational and, well, insurmountable. Think end times. The crux of the matter: We're just not going to be able to compete with the Internet.

I think I've heard something like this before. We weren't going to be able to compete with television, either. And before that, radio.

And maybe, before that, we'd never keep up with the town crier, either. That's when newspapers were the new medium.

My instant reaction to these prophets of doom is much like Mark Twain's when his obituary was mistakenly published: "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." So, I have to believe, are reports of the imminent death of the American newspaper.

Newspapers may not survive in their present form, just as hot lead gave way to cold type, and typewriters to word processors, but no other medium can provide what a newspaper does: a constant compendium of news, opinion, advertising, entertainment, editorial quirks and miscellaneous tidbits, all organized by someone exercising at least some minimal judgment.

Rather than have all that sliced and diced and scattered over innumerable Web sites in no particular order. Or, on the other hand, all too carefully organized to fit some ideological agenda.

There is some intangible but irreplaceable quality about any well-rooted newspaper of long standing: a sense of place, of tradition, of community. It's not just the feel of print-on-paper, however sentimental we wax about it, but what the print says and how it says it.

We grow attached to our newspaper. If it's "my country, right or wrong," it's also "my newspaper, good or bad." We come to know both its sterling qualities and glaring faults, where to look for each, what to hunt for and what to skip. What would life be without being able to complain about the paper?

There's hope even in these dire days for the newspaper industry: If examples of the art, craft and business of daily journalism are now biting the dust all around us, their successors are already forming.

A little historical perspective in these matters might help. Jack Shafer provided some of it in an (online) edition of Slate the other day when he reviewed the Great Newspaper Crackup of 1918, which saw the Boston Journal, Cleveland Leader, New York Press and Boston Traveler publish their last editions.

In response, Mr. Shafer notes, the blueblood critic Oswald Garrison Villard wrote an obituary for daily journalism in America in the pages of the venerable Atlantic Monthly.

Mr. Villard's dismal words "could have been lifted from recent eulogies for the shuttered Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News." For he expressed his fears not only for the future of newspapers, but for the democracy that depended on their vitality and variety. He could not have known that the best was yet to be.

We tend to forget that newspapers, like ourselves, are mortal. They come, they go, and they are succeeded by others. But every time a much-loved one dies -- or even a well-despised one -- another rises to take its place. Maybe not immediately or in the same form, but eventually and in some fashion. Where the demand is, the supply will materialize.

The technology of daily journalism may change, but not the essence of the project. Much as the Polaroid was succeeded by digital photography. Whatever the current technology, we still take family pictures. Cell phones now replace landlines, but the purpose is the same: to make contact, stay in touch, keep up.

Note that in Seattle the old Post-Intelligencer is still around, only online. Actually, there were two P-Is online last time I checked, since reporters and columnists who didn't make the official one have organized a second, freelance Web site. How long before free weeklies, community bulletins and counter-cultural broadsides begin popping up? Like grass after a forest fire.

Doesn't anybody read Schumpeter any more on capitalism as "The Process of Creative Destruction"? Innovations are its most powerful force, like cataclysms in geology. The world we know changes; it doesn't end.