Being a regular consumer of daily print journalism is like being a volunteer medic in a field hospital during the Civil War, watching dozens of patients fight valiantly as they struggle for life, against the odds. We look on with horror as doctors cut off limbs and administer all sorts of dubious chemicals and medicines, in a desperate but usually doomed effort to save their patients' lives. The scene is excruciating.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a kid, I woke up in the morning before my parents so I could read the entire Detroit Free Press from cover to cover. I had to put it back in order by section before my dad came downstairs, though I could buy some extra time by handing him the sports pages first. Ever since then, I have been a print journalism junkie. Even as a young parent, my kids were somehow aware, even before they were sentient, of their father's compulsive need to read the morning papers. God bless them, they slept late as infants, giving me a stretch of time over coffee to read without interruption. This morning, like most mornings, I read three papers: the New York Times for its national and international coverage, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News) for local and regional matters. At various times, I've subscribed to the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor.
Now I spend less and less time reading the paper in the morning. And it's not because my kids are bugging me. It's because there is less of substance on the inky pages to engage me. Over the past decade, nearly every major daily newspaper has struggled for survival. None of them has gotten better. The dailies are hemorrhaging readership. They have been subject to risky, mostly botched surgeries that have left them nearly unrecognizable. They are emaciated and weak. Even the best papers, like the LA Times, are the victims of disfiguring, experimental surgery.
I need not rehearse the larger structural forces undermining print journalism: the rise of TV news, the proliferation of cable outlets, the growing public disinterest in anything substantive, gotcha politics, the tabloidization of American life, and the drivel of celebrity gossip. But the results are devastating for anyone who holds out the hope that information and ideas still matter.
A few big changes: the collapse of foreign bureaus and the waning of international coverage. The Detroit Free Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe all had excellent foreign desks. Today, those papers mostly rely on thin, superficial wire service reports or, at best, redacted pieces from the New York Times. I don't even waste my time reading the Inky's international stories: I just skip right to the local section. But if I didn't subscribe to the Times, what would I know about the rest of the world? Not a lot. It's no surprise that the majority of Americans still think that Saddam had the bomb.
The thinning of national coverage. Domestic political coverage today is mostly abysmal, though it's still better than international reporting. The 24/7 news cycle has led the print media to spill more ink on ephemera and less on substance than ever before. Even the Newhouse News Service, which provides inside the Beltway coverage for small, regional papers that can't afford to send reporters to DC, has announced that it's shutting down.
The collapse of arts and culture. The Philadelphia Inquirer's once grand book review section is now two thin pages. The LA Times has killed its book section, which was arguably only surpassed by two of the few survivors, the Washington Post Book World and the New York Times Book Review. The Chicago Tribune's superbly edited book section is now buried in the Saturday paper, though at least it has (for now) lived through the bloodletting.
To be sure, there are still superb reporters and editors in the news business, even if they have to fight for column inches, get stuck covering trivial stories, and don't have the resources to conduct full investigative stories like they used to in the 1970s. I have spent a lot of time talking to print journalists over the last fifteen years and I have found them on the whole to be intelligent, careful, and thorough, with a few exceptions (like a journalist for a major British newspaper who interviewed me earlier this year with an idee fixe for a story that was wrong--but that I couldn't persuade him to modify, even with mountains of evidence to the contrary).
But even excellent reporters are the victims of desperate surgery at the dailies, witness the grim news that the Newark Star-Ledger will probably axe twenty percent of its staff. Last summer, I spent a few hours with reporters from the Star-Ledger who wrote a superb series commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 riots in Newark and Plainfield. I hope they survive the Newhouse chainsaw amputation. But the grim reality is that many other reporters like them in great papers around the country have taken early buy-outs or been out and out laid off.
I don't have a good solution to the print journalism mess. TV and radio are too beholden to the fleeting image. The 24/7 news cycle on cable news leads to superficiality and trivial pursuits (in a hotel room last week, I suffered through the endless repetition of John McCain's dubious campaign ad about Barack Obama's alleged inattentiveness to wounded US soldiers.) This is not news. It's unpaid campaign advertising. It is a phenomenal waste of our time that the so-called journalists and the pseudo-experts they hire waste our time with their flatulent platitudes.
Unfortunately, I don't hold out much greater hope for the blogosphere. There are some very good investigative journalists on the web, but they don't have the staff and resources to cover stories deeply like the news desks of thirty or forty years ago. And, in many respects, the blogs suffer from some of the worst excesses of 24/7 cable news. Even bloggers whom I respect circulated the completely bogus Michelle Obama "whitey" rumor, giving it a credibility and longevity that it did not deserve. Rumor and innuendo take on a vast, subterranean life on the internet. Worse than that, half-baked, inaccurate, or dubious stories worm their way back into the MSM, which is desperate to appear relevant. The gotcha politics of using a single word or phrase from a candidate's off-the-cuff speeches has, for the most part, done little to elevate political discourse or tell us anything new or important about the larger issues at stake in our elections.
We stand by and helplessly watch the Zells and the Newhouses needlessly amputate limbs and bring out the medical leeches and administer the doses of mercury and laudanum with hopes that their ailing patients will somehow survive. When those remedies fail, they put their charges on starvation diets. It's a sad process to watch.