Stop the presses? Can it be? Compared to the suddenly very possible demise of newspaper titans including the New York Times, the fate of the “unsinkable” Titanic a century ago seems mildly odd, the collapse of General Motors merely a bit strange. It’s going to leave a gap in the American national conversation. But we’ll all survive fairly easily.
It’s weird to see this fate overtake the daily press, an institution that once seemed as much a part of American life as the neighbourhood barber shop. Twentieth century fiction and commentary alike could not imagine urban life without daily mass circulation newspapers, or those newspapers without the authoritative, massive, eternal flagships every reporter and editor envied. Now paper after paper folds up or seeks bankruptcy protection, and even the mighty Times is reduced to swearing it really honestly won’t go bankrupt… next month.
The economic difficulties of newspapers are not all that surprising. It is true that they have not been in a long slow decline like most of the “rust belt” industries that defined American economic might from the turn of the century into the 1960s. Newspapers were not slowly ground down by foreign competitors figuring out mass production while compulsory unionization drove up costs and drove out innovation. Instead, they were suddenly blindsided by the Internet.
It’s not that anyone solved the problem of how to make money giving something away free online. Instead, online searches and email took away newspapers’ ability to do exactly that the old-fashioned way. In their old, apparently unsinkable business model, subscription and newsstand prices never even attempted to cover production costs. Instead, they attracted readers with cheap papers, and then advertisers paid them to deliver their messages to those readers. And unfortunately the Internet made it possible for buyers and sellers to find one another faster and more reliably, and revenue from classified and retail advertising collapsed with catastrophic rapidity.
Thus far newspapers have my sympathy, and not only because they have been a major source of my income for the past dozen years. I didn’t see this terrible problem coming a decade ago either. But the other major problem now afflicting newspapers was entirely self-inflicted and I did see that one coming. It was content: what they covered and, even more, the way they covered it. The newspaper industry as a whole took on a particular tone of smug bias that now prevents it from adapting to changed circumstances in the only way I think is realistic.
There were exceptions, of course, but the typical newspaper and especially the typical elite newspaper deserve exactly the reproach my distinctly unconventional colleague David Warren delivered last May. “In my view… The idea of the news sheet remains essentially sound… People still want something to read that is portable and companionable and requires no technological savvy whatever. But those who can read want something … intrinsically lively, informative, interesting, and even reliable and trustworthy and aesthetically satisfying.” Instead of which, especially as they came to recruit mostly from journalism schools, newspapers became the preserve of a narrow liberal elite “who think and sound like sociology majors, and express themselves in a jargon stream of pompous, preachy, preening, vaguely leftist and reptilian drivel.”
The only way newspapers can survive in the digital era is to exploit the negative tendency of the Internet to overload us with information of dubious quality. They must become trusted gatekeepers, sites to which you subscribe even for things you could get free elsewhere because they collect it all in one place in an intelligent and fair-minded way and save you hours of precious time for a few dollars a week. And nobody now trusts them to do so but the sorts of liberals who, in William F. Buckley Jr.’s apt jibe, go on endlessly about other points of view but are always amazed to find that there are other points of view. There aren’t enough such people to sustain the industry on reader rather than advertiser revenue.
Take The New York Times … please. On questions of factual accuracy, and weight with the chattering classes in liberal epochs, it had some real claim to be the American newspaper of record. And it deserves credit for broadening its pages by inventing the Op Ed page (a seemingly timeless feature, it actually began in the “grey lady” in 1970). But the Times took a reliably and offensively biased liberal position from time out of mind without even realizing it.
In the 1920s it assured its readers Hitler had been tamed. In the early 1930s it published Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer-winning lies denying Stalin’s famines. Its crusade against the Vietnam war culminated with the notorious headline “Indochina Without Americans: For Most, A Better Life” from Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 30, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge took the city and began their genocide.
In 1983 the Times sonorously informed its readers that “the stench of failure” hung over the Reagan White House. And on and on. In a master-stroke of clueless pomposity, every four years the editorial board stroked its collective long grey beard before pronouncing that on this occasion they considered the Democratic candidate for president superior… 14 straight times and counting.
I do think the collapse of a national press is bad for a nation. Love them or hate them, a few generally recognized leading publications created a shared framework for a national conversation in which virtually every informed person knew many of the same facts and was reacting to the same thoughtful presentations of those facts.
The development of technology from the dawn of the microchip era was bound to fragment this conversation to some extent. Even cable television reduced the shared cultural experience of audiences in the industrial democracies in the 20th century, hearing the same handful of major radio shows then watching the same handful of entertainment and news programs. You don’t have to think it could have been prevented to see some drawbacks to the shattering of this common focus and the development of a sort of national and international ADD.
The Internet does take Chesterton’s warning about the parochialism of big cities to new heights; with millions of blogs to choose from we can easily avoid information overload by focusing only on those sources that confirm everything we already think in exactly the tone we find most congenial. Newspapers could make money combating that tendency, if they hadn’t long ago succumbed to the temptation to perform it for one elite point of view only.
They will be missed for what they might have done. But not, sadly, for what they chose to do instead while they still had a choice.
John Robson is an Ottawa based writer and broadcaster.