John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, June 5, 2009

The old order

Thirty years ago, David Halberstam published The Powers That Be, a book on Time magazine, CBS, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It was a look at “the kingdom of the media,” a realm that may not yet be one with Nineveh and Tyre, but which is certainly much diminished in wealth and power.

I have been thinking about the dwindling of that cozy world of the mass-market giants — the metropolitan dailies, the television broadcasters, the news magazines — since Tuesday night’s Abell symposium on the future of local news, sponsored by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Here’s an account of the proceedings by Joan Jacobson, a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

The audience contained a majority of Sun people, and Sun alumni considerably outnumbered current Sun employees in attendance. Among Sun alumni there was a fair contingent older than I am. Because of the demographic — and I know that it is not seemly for someone of my age and propensities to mock cootdom — I suspect that audience responded to the panelists with a mindset informed by the world Halberstam described, not the world in which journalism now functions.

Two members of that panel earned my sympathy. The first was Monty Cook, the incumbent editor of The Sun, partly for just showing up. Many in that audience were clearly bitter about the successive reductions in the paper’s staff and scope, particularly the layoffs that occurred at the end of April. Their questions showed a profound skepticism about the company’s current attempt to straddle the print and electronic platforms, but he made his case gamely. I’m skeptical myself, because no one knows whether the new strategy will work; but I also know that no previous strategy has succeeded.

The other was Mark Potts, the blogger at Recovering Journalist. (If you read Ms. Jacobson’s article, you had better also read Mr. Potts’s account.) It fell to him to demonstrate, to even greater skepticism than Mr. Cook faced, that local electronic journalism is already beginning to take over the tasks that daily newspapers used to see as their monopoly.

There was a good deal of shaking of heads that displayed gray hair and male-pattern baldness. But I noticed from some of the subsequent Twitter traffic that that small-under-forty demographic in the audience found Mr. Potts to have made the most compelling points.

The old powers that be are being shouldered aside. They might yet adapt to a new and less hospitable environment, and they might be supplanted by newcomers, some of which have not yet even emerged. Looking backward, I think, will not serve those struggling to survive.


  1. "The old order changeth, yielding place to new / And God fulfils himself in many ways / Lest one good custom should corrupt the world." --King Arthur in Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur

  2. Here's another take on what has happened specifically at The Sun:

  3. Would the new order please stand up already? It seems that the old order yieldeth to no order whatsoever.