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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Wake up and smell the coffins

David Sullivan wrote a typically thoughtful and moving account last week of what the daily newspaper has meant to its community. This is the core of it:

[E]ven in its damaged state, people still have certain expectations of a newspaper — expectations that they do not have for other media. The newspaper is supposed to reflect and stand for what is right, whether it be linguistically correct or morally correct. The newspaper is supposed to seek the truth and not be complicit in coverups, lies, and the general human search for entropy. The newspaper is supposed to be one of the institutions that hold the community to a higher standard.

So far, we have not discovered a media replacement for that role, which is largely based upon print's combination of near-universal access to a product with a high cost of entry for producing similar products, which makes it both ubiquitous and singular.

My son has been challenging me recently about my mention of community institutions. When you look at the changes in society, the 1950s vs. now; the more roles, options, choices people have; the continuing rise of social justice; the limits that were placed on people in an era when everyone had to read the World-Herald and shop at Brandeis or Kilpatrick's to see an informed and representative choice of what was available, in news or merchandise — exactly how did these slow-moving, bureaucratic, closed-minded, often racist and sexist institutions (including mainstream churches, and schools in the era of rote learning) make things better than they are now? It's a good question, and part of the answer has to be — they didn't.

But community institutions such as newspapers — which are in some ways the last community institutions — still stand for the community's desire to be better than it is.


Unfortunately, that view appears to be held mainly by a couple of generations that are passing away. It is a view that would seem bizarre, even ludicrous, to people under the age of thirty, and perhaps under the age of forty. Newspapers have failed those potential readers by publishing stories that were overlong, appallingly dull, and monumentally self-indulgent. Do you know why multi-part series have so often been published in November and December, during holiday seasons when people have less time to read? So publication would fall within the calendar year and makes those series eligible for consideration by prize juries.

Publishing newspapers for other journalists rather than for readers should have looked iffy — and I have a fairly good idea of how many of my former colleagues over the years did not even read their own newspaper regularly or thoroughly.

But even at the most self-indulgent and obtuse moments, newspapers still aspired to the role that Mr. Sullivan describes, and sometimes actually rose to it.

The great failure of metropolitan daily newspapers has not been in the newsroom but in the boardroom.

Newspapers still have a huge body of readers, in print and online, but the advertising to support the operation has gone away, a trend that the recession has accelerated. Alan Mutters Reflections of a Newsosaur reported yesterday that newspaper advertising fell a sickening 28.3 percent in the first quarter of this year. That is a loss of $2.6 billion. And that number is down from 2008, which itself was no banner year. If you don’t understand why your newspaper is wafer-thin, think about these numbers.

The failure in the boardroom has been a failure to adjust to radically changing business conditions — that is, inability to acquire new sources of revenue — complicated by enormous debt taken on during more prosperous times. That failure likely means the end of the metropolitan daily as readers have known it.

In 1986, when I came to work at The Sun, the paper had eight foreign bureaus, a Washington bureau, reporters in New York and California, suburban bureaus in the core counties, and reporters in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. It was a serious paper. When the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded, The Sun put the story on the front page, accompanied inside by an excerpt of the author’s work. The Sun was the paper in which David Simon anatomized the drug trade in Baltimore. The Sun was a paper that won the Pulitzer. People I met were proud that their city could boast such a paper, and I was damn proud to work for it.

That paper is gone (as am I), and it is not coming back. Nostalgia is a poor substitute for income.

What will survive, in print and online, remains to be seen. Steve Buttry’s “Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection” points to one approach. There is also renewed talk about charging for online content — an idea about which I remain deeply skeptical. Not even in print’s palmy days were readers willing to pony up the cash required to support a metropolitan daily, and it will be hard for publications with diminished staffs to produce the kind of quality, unique content that people might be willing to pay for. And even then, would it be enough?

I don’t subscribe to the overheated talk that the decline of the metropolitan daily, or even its extinction, would destroy democracy. There are lots of voices being published, in print and electronically. I do worry about where to find verified information of the kind that newspapers strived to produce. I do worry about journalists being able to make a living at the craft. And I wait to see what comes next.

9 comments:

  1. As always, a meaningful and articulate article, John. Here’s some of the ponderings it provoked in me…

    On Sullivan’s quote, “The newspaper is supposed to be one of the institutions that hold the community to a higher standard.” It has been awhile since I was enrolled in History of Journalism 101 and Social Institutions 201, so I hope that someone will correct my knowledge as needed. Disclaimer not withstanding, I truly thought that the romantic ideal of the reliable, honorable newspaper was more of a shining moment in culture and history (American middle to late 20th century) than a standard truth. Likewise, as long as I’ve had any contact with them, community newspapers have struggled financially. I can remember the late 70’s, searching for a job in journalism in the rural/small town South. Any number of papers were happy to have me write, but they weren’t going to pay me for the writing. Or copy editing, for that matter. They wanted me to sell advertising, and I am no sales person.

    Money, it seems to me, is always the king when it comes to any type of media. Income to pay those who are in production. Profit to please those who invest. In capitalism, that’s the way it goes. And when the pendulum swings from one extreme to another (nod to Hegel), personal consumptive greed on the one hand and some sense of civic responsibility on the other, those who believe in what they are doing will get knocked about.

    Much like people in healthcare and education (and probably other professions) frontline and even second line newspaper folk seem to be those who live in a balance between experiencing their work as “vocation” (i.e. a calling from something higher than personal gain) and (justifiably) wanting to be paid for their work. There are moments (sometimes decades-long moments) in community life where that will happen. It’s easy to forget that the pendulum still swings, and moments do change. And it’s painful when that happens.

    As to your wonderings, John, about where this is all going. I am hopeful that this type of format continues. For one thing, it pushes the reader to actually engage with the writer…to not assume accuracy, but to explore it. For another, I am convinced that this type of media pushes both the writer and the reader, at least in this moment, to practice the humility and patience needed to really communicate (referencing your article from Monday).

    Realize that this is a REALLY long response. You have my permission to edit away, if you so choose.

    This blog is better than any newspaper I can find at this moment…

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  2. I have a long post too, but this this topic has prompted many thoughts...

    This post got me to wondering why I rarely read the newspaper. Maybe these thoughts can offer some insight from a fairly typical reader.

    Here is where my perspective is coming from: I am too young to be a Baby Boomer and too old to be a Gen Xer. I came of age when personal computing was taking off—I used a word processor to write my college papers but did not use the Internet until grad school. I have embraced the Internet age to a point (I don’t twitter), and I still want to preserve traditional reading (I have a collection of old books).

    I am a reader that newspapers must have failed because I find myself thinking: why should I pay $1.50 for something I can read for free online? (I understand, it’s not completely free—I see advertising and I pay for cable.) I also have allowed my news magazine subscription to end because, again, they only offer me content that I can find online. I read all the news I need to read on msnbc.com, cnn.com, and local and regional newspapers’ Web sites, and I can easily choose the topics I want to read about. Furthermore, if I want more depth on any topic, I can find it online.

    I admit that I have adopted an attitude of “I can find it myself”—the local sports team’s schedule, airline tickets, the best price in town for a 12-pack of Coke—I can do this better than any newspaper can right now.

    I occasionally buy a Sunday newspaper but am usually disappointed. I could have gotten the content online. If I am looking for a job, I search online, even job listings from the newspaper are free online. If I want to buy something, I search online instead of using the newspaper’s classifieds. Same thing if I want to sell something. Even if I want to read the comics, there are more choices and more comics that fit my personal tastes online.

    All of this probably contributes to the idea that the newspaper as community institution is a thing of the past. And it also probably indicates that the ideal community as we might like to know it is not possible—it seems like community is fragmented in the cyber age. Some find community in social networking sites, but it’s not the same, is it?

    So we need a radically new way to fill the role that the newspaper once served in the community. Like any business, this industry has to be constantly trying to re-invent itself. I don’t know what the new approach will be, but as a reader, I’ll be watching.

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  3. I just wish people would stop talking about newspapers as anything but what they started out as and always have been: money-printing operations. Newspapers have ALWAYS been profit-making ventures--still are--it's just that the profit margin has shrunken so much as to make them unreliable/unattractive investment opportunities. A.S. Abell was no journalist--he and his partners were entrepreneurs and hustlers. They made their fortune--as all newspaper magnates did--by selling the space in their publications around which they allowed their editors carved out a "news hole--" also an ever-shrinking piece of real estate. No publisher in his right mind ever printed a paper for the egalitarian good of his community--that's nonsense. That's like saying Walt Disney and Milton Hershey were fascinated with how amusement parks bettered their respective communities. "Newspaper of record" is the lawyers' fixation, not the publishers'. Newspapers make their publishers wealthy--in some cases wildly so--always have. When they stop doing that, they go under--always will. Sorry to be such a cynic, but we need to stop weeping over some evanescent dream of the Golden Age of American journalism as if the employees of those papers were knights of the Round Table. They weren't. They aren't. It's always been a cynical, Juvenalian business. (Oh, and since you bring up David Simon: Here's a guy who's gotten wealthy writing checks in the blood of young African-Americans in the drug trade and passing off his and his cadre's distorted vision of Baltimore as somehow art imbued with the verissimilitude of his (not very deep or lengthy, really) experience when it's all just a bunch of creative non-fiction that has exploited an entire city and its people.) Newspapers will always exist as long as they can sell ads; who cares what's in the news hole?
    My two cents, respectfully submitted.

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  4. Patricia the TerseJune 3, 2009 at 2:52 AM

    Creative non-fiction David Simon may write - I admit that "Homicide" was one of the best television series, until they changed the cast and the scripts. But the "blood of young" blacks is of their own creation: no one told them to produce extraordinary numbers of illegitimate children and abandon the mothers shortly after conception.Or allow themselves to be impregnated and then hear the door slam shut shortly thereafter. Or sell drugs. Or roam the streets looking for more of their own kind. Or slam into a school and beat to death a young boy because of a lost baseball game. Neighborhoods-successes or failures-make a city a city. And no entity tells those stories better than a good,experienced city reporter for a strong metro desk. The same can be said for good arts reporters as they reflect cultural life found in the Symphony, the chamber music series and the theatre, the museums and galleries. Somehow print - journals, newspapers, books and magazines-with its feel, smell and weight, conveys better the telling of stories: good, bad, repulsive, amusing, necessary and ephemeral.A newpaper has its own character: a computer screen is impersonal and when the Off button is hit, the images disappear with a barely audible sigh into the cyber-Ewigkeit. The money required to publish is not "Das Ding an sich." It is merely the means whereby. Mr Darrow surely has noticed the internet is chock-a-block with inducements to spend. The argument, it seems to me, is neither a moral nor an ethical one, but rather a matter of what is practical.

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  5. speaking of overlong, appallingly dull, and ...

    this seems to be "too much, too late," and a painfully obvious reflection on the past.

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  6. Sometimes it takes many words to express a deeply-felt grief.

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  7. I suspect that Cherie B has hit the nail on the head: We in the newsroom who pride ourselves on striving for objectivity and letting the chips fall where they may are rooted in a very particular place and time -- the United States from about 1970 through 1995.
    Before and since, newspapers have mostly been written to sell newspapers. During that brief interlude, a majority of us worked very hard to create beacons of truth and understanding, driving constantly to expunge bias while reaching for a sense of rectitude. We weren't perfect, and probably we failed more often than we succeeded. But we had ideals, and we didn't mind seeming a bit hypocritical as long as those ideals lived on.
    Now, we appear to be entering a period in which commercialism is mixed with partisanship, both concepts we older warhorses hoped never to encounter when discussing what was news.
    But, readers, keep in mind one truth that the Internet might lead you to lose track of. It's an old and somewhat crass saying, but that only adds to its verity: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. If you want news served up with depth and clarity and a minimum of bias, then no matter where you get your news, buy a newspaper. Reporters and editors cannot survive on good wishes.

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  8. Clarence Darrow, I think you're confusing the aims of the owners of newspapers with those of the journalists who write and edit there.

    Patricia the Terse, you must not have been actually paying attention to "Homicide" or "The Wire" when you watched it, to think that it's the fault of all those poor people for being poor.

    There have been "newspaperman discovers something terrible and saves the day" stories for as long as there have been newspapers. Watch some 1930s movies and you'll see. I think everyone with a byline has a little bit of Superman hiding behind that Clark Kent exterior.

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  9. Prof. McIntyre, you wrote that "Publishing newspapers for other journalists rather than for readers should have looked iffy..." My feeling is that each reporter should write for her- or himself. Not to prove to other journalists that they can write and not to write what readers want to hear, but to write a story that tells readers what they should know, why they should know it, and how it affects their lives. It comes from ones inner sense of justice, fairness, and, to sound trite, to shine the light on often shadowy activities. That is what makes great journalism, what wins Pulitzer and other prizes, and what makes readers WANT to read a newpaper. It is as valid for restaurant reviewers as for hard news writers. And, yes, I'm old enough to have had these ideals and sensibilities imprinted when I was a college student during the early sixties.

    Retired in Elkridge

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