Driving through the Maine countryside today, I realized suddenly that it was time for Hal Crowther to weigh in on Something Important again. Hal used to do this weekly back when we were both several decades younger and living in North Carolina. I’m long gone, but Hal’s still there, putting out essays no less interesting but far less often.
Sure enough, my email tonight includes a note from a fellow ex-Carolinian, now living in Bangkok, pointing to Hal’s latest, Stop the presses: The future of the newspaper—without the paper. As usual, it’s strong coffee:
|It’s hard to dispute that the newspaper is doomed in the long run, as an inefficient and wasteful medium that technology can easily improve upon. I’ve never argued that point, in spite of my personal feelings—certainly not on Sunday mornings as I peel off the two dozen junk sections crammed into my local paper, fill a garbage bag with them and wonder which shady grove of whispering pines was sacrificed to make the wretched things possible. Compared with audio-visual advertising, they’re also a primitive, low-yield way to deliver a commercial message.|
|But the key point of understanding is that while the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace old ones there’s no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly. As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill—a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the workforce and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic.|
Even if you don’t agree, read on. It’s killer writing. They don’t get any better. Dig:
|The Tribune Company, the grasping conglomerate owner that strangled the Los Angeles Times, has been entertaining a buyout offer from an “angel,” Chicago real estate megabillionaire Sam Zell, who’s on record saying “there is no difference” between running a newspaper and managing any other for-profit business. If that isn’t irony enough, Zell’s nickname is “The Grave Dancer,” for his ability to spot moribund properties and exploit them profitably. How I’d relish the opportunity to lecture him on the difference between owning a newspaper and owning a mall. Carroll argues that these corporate leviathans are “genuinely perplexed” by journalists–“people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder. What makes these people tick, they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense. … Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome.” If we believe Carroll, who ought to know, nothing we ever held sacred is safe from jungle capitalism and its harsh ideology, as we might have guessed from the awful mess the free market has made of American health care. Citing Carroll and Washington Post owner Donald Graham as his star witnesses, Baker comes to the radical conclusion that “free-market capitalism doesn’t really work very well in the newspaper business, and if rigorously applied, tends to destroy it.”|
|“Angels” who come to the rescue of shareholders smell a whole lot like vultures to me. And the vultures are circling. They may not grasp much of what it took to put this country together, but they have keen noses for carrion. If Zell is the Grave Dancer, “The Grave Digger” is a fitting nickname for Murdoch, that successful devourer of sick newspapers whose purchase of the Journal feels like one of the last big nails in our collective coffin. I picture Murdoch with dirt on his shovel and the WSJ lying there next to the hole he’s digging, not quite dead but very pale and breathing irregularly. Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to news in America was when Murdoch put the word “Fox” next to it. His gross pollution of the media mainstream in Australia, Great Britain and now the USA secures his place in history as an archenemy of the English language itself.|
|But the Dancer and the Digger are merely broad-shouldered, beady-eyed wealth magnets, crude engines designed by nature for the mindless multiplication of property. A world gone desperately awry gives them far more credit and attention than they deserve. If newspapers achieve extinction, along perhaps with “the news” as we knew it, only the liberals will blame Rupert Murdoch. He’s an end-game player. The newspaper industry stood with a foot in its grave long before Murdoch became an American citizen (for the sole purpose of circumventing the law that only an American citizen can own a television network).|
Then he turns around and hits blogs too:
|Let me put it this way: At any moment there are 40,000 stories out there claiming to be the gospel truth. Many of them are good as gold, presented by people with the best intentions; many are lies and distortions sponsored by people with the worst. Most are muddle and nonsense. It takes years of experience or constant immersion in the news cycles, or both, just to begin to sort them out. The most plausible, professional sources are often the most ruthless liars, and usually the most generously funded. Never in history has so much sinister talent, or so much money, been committed to creating, shaping, manipulating, dominating or suppressing the stories we hear or don’t hear. A blogging orthodontist with a genius IQ is no match at all for Karl Rove, Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch—believe me. It’s not even David vs. Goliath, it’s Goliath vs. Tinkerbell.|
Worse, he quotes Andrew Keen. But I’m willing to let that go, because Crowther does the job Keen botched. That job was to challenge, and not merely to deride. Sez Hal,
|In this time of public apathy, the Internet’s spirit impresses me more than its performance. When you show me how Web sites and blogs will generate enough revenue to feed, house and clothe the next generation of full-time truth hunters unashamed to call themselves journalists, I’ll shelve my skepticism and join the parade. Either way they’ll replace us, at least in the sense that they’ll be here when we are gone. And The End may be much nearer than clueless luddites like me can calculate. According to Joel Auchenbach of the Washington Post, a committed blogger, cyber-marketing technique—tracking page views or “eyeballs” minute-to-minute—is already corrupting editors hungry for readers. In the wired, market-driven newsroom, O.J. Simpson trumps global warming every time.|
Well, crap was king in most newsrooms long before Don Henley wrote and sang Dirty Laundry. Really, is Rupert Murdoch any better or worse than William Randolph Hearst? But Hal’s right about every business model he trashes here. Including the one thanks to which countless bloggers have become no less obsessed with eyeballs than any other “journal” — traditional or otherwise — that lives mostly to serve ego and advertising. More importantly, he’s right that we haven’t found the business model that makes a living, and not just a cause, for full-time truth-hunters.
Difference is, I’m an optimist. One thing I want out of VRM is jobs for journalists, all working directly for the readers who comprise the market for truth — and not just for the advertising money that always threatened to currupt journalism, whether or not it succeeded.
In fact, it was for this very purpose that I applied for a Knight News Challenge grant, just a few hours under the wire last week. We’ll see how that goes (I’ve heard nothing, and can’t tell if the online application even went through), but I do want to get us there.
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