Monday, August 4, 2008


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.


hesperia said...

Seems to me that the concentration of ownership of print and other media is at least as responsible for superficial reporting on unimportant issues as anything else. And it's one thing that could be fixed pretty easily with the political will to do it. Of course, it ought never to have happened in the first place and lots of people predicted the results. Probably you too.

I'm not sure that I agree about the blogosphere. When I first started looking around, I did find that I had to wade through lots of garbage. But just as print consumers decide which names and organizations they can trust, so I've learned who I believe on the net. And just as I viewed what I read in print media with a fair bit of scepticism, so I regard a fair bit of what I read in the 'sphere. Don't you think the people who don't understand that are the same people who believe in all sorts of rumours and lies without stopping to question? Many blogs are the equivalent of the Enquirer, but most? people know what they're reading.

I, too, was a bit of an obsessive consumer of newspapers by the time I was 14. First thing my Dad taught me, though, was not to believe everything I read.

I do miss those things that I think print media did best. Book sections are one; investigative reporting is another. But if people really wanted that, wouldn't we be buying and demanding more of it?

Peter said...

As a surviving L.A. Times journalist and a former student of this blog's author (that means you, Tom!), I want to challenge the narrative that all print coverage has turned to triviality. The fact is that major American papers (this includes, for the time being, the L.A. Times) still do some excellent national and international coverage. Even papers that have had their national and international staffs pared back more than ours continue to put out quality stuff: The Boston Globe comes to mind...they did ground-breaking coverage of the "signing statements" controversy last year, and some of their stuff on the Romney campaign was fantastic.

Before everyone agrees the end of serious newspaper coverage is nigh, I encourage people to go back and actually read the four papers that maintain major national and international staffs: NYT, WSJ, LAT, and WashPost. There has been some unparalleled coverage of Zimbabwe, Myanmar, China, Pakistan and Iraq over the last year in all four papers, and (for the most part) all have avoided the silliness that pervades TV coverage of the presidential campaign. If you're looking for subsantive coverage of McCain/Obama energy policy, or war plans, or the candidates' backgrounds, it's all in there and accessible on the web.

The cutbacks and the chaos in the industry are depressing, no doubt, and if it continues, I'm not sure where serious coverage of the nation and world is going to come from.

But all 4 papers still have, even after cutbacks, newsrooms that staff northwards of 700 journalists. To paraphrase the Black Plague victim from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": We're not dead yet!

Tom S said...

Hesperia, I agree that there's a learning curve with the blogosphere and that intelligent readers like you and me can separate the wheat from the chaff. And it might be that we are in a transitional phase in the history of journalism that might lead, eventually, to blogs with the reporting capacity of the big papers like the big four that Peter mentions. Some well known journalists have made their way to places like HuffPo. And new talent emerges in all sorts of places from the pages of TPM to the online only Brooklyn Rail.

But in its current configuration, the blogosphere is a better source for opinion than for news. It's not an adequate substitute for everyday print journalism, even if it is often a wonderful, opinionated complement to it.

Peter: you are right about the four top papers. They have some immensely talented writers and editors and, most importantly, the resources to support them. I have quibbles, as we all do, with the quality of reporting and the editorial choices that all of these papers sometimes make, but so be it. Any one of these papers holds its own with its counterparts in other countries. The New York Times is better overall than its British and French counterparts (which I occasionally read).

My lament is mostly about the papers that constitute the second tier. From Chicago to Cleveland to Atlanta to San Francisco to Miami, they have taken the hit. All of them continue to attract and retain reporters and editors of great talent (including some of my other former students). The talent in those papers shines through: the Globe series on signing statements was excellent. The Chicago Tribune, weak as it is, has offered superb coverage of Barack Obama's political career. To pick two other topics up my alley: The Detroit Free Press ran a fabulous series on Detroit's neighorhoods last year (and I am a tough critic on that topic). And the Philadelphia Inquirer deserves props and maybe even a Pulitzer for its rigorous investigation of the dysfunctional city child welfare office.

But the sad reality is that all of these papers, even the Globe and Inky, which were at the top of the second tier two decades ago, have slipped in most respects. The Chicago Tribune has some very good reporters, but everytime I visit the Windy City, the paper seems thinner. I can read through the Detroit papers (at least the city still has two) in about ten minutes, less if I've read the Times first. The list goes on.

People like me will continue to rely on the LAT, NYT, WaPo, and WSJ to keep up with the US and the world. But in a country of 300 million plus, I hope that there will be some more survivors. Otherwise, Peter, Hesperia and I will rove the plague-laden streets, shouting "bring out your dead" as we push our carts through the ruins. And we will rejoice every once in a while when one of them reminds us that he isn't dead yet.

Brian H said...

>Peter, Hesperia and I will rove the plague-laden streets, shouting "bring out your dead" as we push our carts through the ruins<

Yes...but...who will beat the cat against the wall while you do that?

Tom S said...


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