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.

Bringing Dickens into focus

One of the problems with Charles Dickens is that there is so much stuff. All those novels. The compelling biographical details. The Victorian background. Where to start?

Happily, Brian Murray, a professor in the writing department at Loyola College, has written a short, readable introduction, the Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Dickens (Continuum, 184 pages, $19.95, due out on July 1). Just the thing for the reader in the foothills of this mountain of prose.

The ethics of disclosure compel me to state that Professor Murray engaged me to go over the proofs of the book. Should you discover any errors in it, you should feel free to blame the copy editor.