A Last Lament for the Daily

Modern journalism has become more about the sizzle and less about the steak. It has fallen victim to sensationalism and a hijacking by the liberal elite. Long lost among most journalists is a sense of unadulterated mission, ethics, balance, and professionalism.

The Media was never supposed to be The Message.

The confluence of ubiquitous bandwidth and an unquenchable fervor to exercise our First Amendment privileges that has become the blogosphere has like hot lava flowed into the vacuum created by the demise of the flabby, flatulent print media conglomerate, and has taken what’s left of it.

Oh that, and Craig’s List.

The common thread here, whether the subject is foreign, national or local, is that the writer in question is performing a valuable task for the reader — one that no sane man would perform for free. He is assembling what in the business world is termed the “executive summary.” Anyone can duplicate a long and tedious report. And anyone can highlight one passage from that report and either praise or denounce it. But it takes both talent and willpower to analyze the report in its entirety and put it in a context comprehensible to the casual reader.

Assuming anyone reads that stuff…with interest…and we all know bloggers that have already seperated themselves from the legions that run their keyboards “for free”.

This highlights the real flaw in the thinking of those who herald the era of citizen journalism. They assume newspapers are going out of business because we aren’t doing what we in fact do amazingly well, which is to quickly analyze and report on complex public issues. The real reason they’re under pressure is much more mundane. The Internet can carry ads more cheaply, particularly help-wanted and automotive ads.

In his 1920 essay “The National Letters,” Mencken traced this sentiment back to the early days of our democracy. He noted how first Ralph Waldo Emerson and then Walt Whitman prophesized the rise of what Whitman termed “a class of native authors, literatuses, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known.” Mencken was pessimistic about this prospect thanks to what he termed “the democratic distrust of whatever strikes beneath the prevailing platitudes.”

I share that pessimism. Every time a new medium arises, a new group of avatars arises with it, assuring us of the wondrous effects it will produce for our democracy.

Maybe so, but when the news isn’t news anymore meets declining ad revenue via competition and declining credibility via overarching liberal ideologies, discarding the Kersten’s and the Coleman’s is too little too late. The Dailies aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Relevance is like innocence; once lost, tough to repossess.

Bloggers rarely adhere to standards superior to those long since discarded by traditional outlets, but they seek not to delude the reader otherwise.

When my colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger John Farmer started off in journalism more than five decades ago, things were very different. After covering a political event, he’d hop on the campaign bus, pull out a typewriter, and start banging out copy. As the bus would pull into a town, he’d ball up a finished page and toss it out the window. There a runner would scoop it up and rush it off to a telegraph station where it would be blasted back to the home office.

At the time, reporters thought this method was high-tech. Now, thanks to the Internet, a writer can file a story instantly from anywhere. It’s incredibly convenient, but that same technology is killing old-fashioned newspapers. Some tell us that that’s a good thing. I disagree and believe that the public will miss us once we’re gone.

We’ll know if that’s true soon enough.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched a parade of top-notch reporters leave the Star-Ledger for the last time. The old model for compensating journalists is as obsolete as the telegraph. If anyone out there in the blogosphere can tell me what the new model is, I will pronounce him the first genius I’ve ever encountered on the Internet.

That, my friend, is yet to be determined but it will surely be a product of a recipe that will include equal measures of free expression, innovation, and free enterprise.

8 thoughts on “A Last Lament for the Daily

  1. I disagree and believe that the public will miss us once we’re gone
    Not for one minute.

    It makes one wonder if the Neanderthals looked around at the encroaching Homo Sapiens and said to each other, “Well, there may be a lot of them, and they seem to have this “tool” concept pretty well organized, but WE have higher cranial capacity. Not to worry.”

  2. From Deborah Howell’s farewell column today at WaPo:

    Journalism is better than it was in my early days, and changes in technology have opened up a new world. My worry is that journalists aren’t as connected to readers as they were in the days of my youth, when the city’s newspaper was the equivalent of the public square. Then, reporters tended to be folks who often hadn’t graduated from, or even attended, college, and they weren’t looking to move to bigger papers. They knew the community well, didn’t make much money and lived like everyone else, except for chasing fires and crooks.

    Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we’re just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online.

  3. Terry, nice quote, but it should have been shorter:

    In the heyday of newspapers reporters were more like typical citizens in outlook and life style. And they had the most cost efficient method of disseminating information. Now they’re much more costly, and they’re more like the elite and are losing the ability to appeal to the typical citizen so they’re losing their audience.

    Really, newspapers in particular have thrown away what makes them unique and valuable: hard reporting. They’ve gone into analysis and policy making, and given their differences with the typical citizen they don’t deliver the goods as well as others.

    Hard reporting is hard. Hard reporting is also local, so most dailies resist it since it would shrink their scope and bruise their egos. But there’s only room for a few sources of hard global news, and places like the Strib will never fill it.

  4. HHewitt once wrote an essay recalling the experience of spending a day observing classes at Columbia School of Journalism. Ah, here it is: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/619njpsr.asp
    A few choice quotes (probably too long)

    The 16 students are not evenly split–there are 14 women and just two men. Two-thirds of the M.S. class this year are women, a reflection of what Lemann calls the “feminization” of journalism programs across the country. Robert Mac Donald, the assistant dean for admissions and financial aid, ran down the demographics for me: The average age of an M.S. student is just shy of 28, the mean is 26, the youngest is 20, and the oldest is 63. Whites make up 69 percent of the new class; 11 percent are African American, 7 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, 3 percent Middle Eastern, and 4 percent South Asian. The school doesn’t yet keep stats on religious background, though Mac Donald believes there has been a significant increase in Muslim students post 9/11. A fifth of the students are from the New York area, and between 37 to 40 percent are from “the corridor”–from Boston to Washington. Another fifth are from the west coast, and 10 percent are foreign. It is a pretty “blue” student body, and willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of their credentials. A year at CSJ–tuition, living expenses, incidentals–comes to $59,404 according to Mac Donald, though 85 percent of the students receive some financial aid, with packages ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. The average scholarship is $5,200, which means that these students are putting a lot of money into the program.

    Note the high tuition. Entry level jobs in journalism (even with a CSJ degree) don’t pay much more than $30k/yr.

    Six of the 16 were English majors, two studied history, and the balance spread across the humanities. No one had a background in the physical sciences. No one owned a gun. All supported same-sex marriage. Three had been in a house of worship the previous week.

  5. Johnny says:

    “The confluence of ubiquitous bandwidth and an unquenchable fervor to exercise our First Amendment privileges that has become the blogosphere has like hot lava flowed into the vacuum created by the demise of the flabby, flatulent print media conglomerate, and has taken what’s left of it.”

    Which is completely incorrect. For proof all I need do is to point out the last election cycle. The MSM was able to cocoon and protect “the Messiah” while the blogoshere was completely ineffective in promoting a Republican message. Not to mention the Senate recount here in Minnesota, the blogoshere sure has a lot of people stirred up now, don’t they.

    As long as conservatives and Republicans listen to liberal hacks like Hugh Hewitt they will never have any lasting success. And before anybody tries to tell me I’m wrong about HH let me remind you that he was in favor of the border bill when good people like Laura Ingraham and Rush and Sean were against it and got it defeated. HH wrote a book trying to remake Mitt as a conservative which he still to this day IS NOT! HH uses phrases like center-right which is code for including liberals in our tent. He has liberal Republicans on his show like Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty.

    What conservative bloggers should be discussing is what happened this last election cycle and developing a plan that will bring us victory next election cycle. So here’s a couple of hints for you, we shouldn’t try to be a “big tent” party, and core values work every time they’re promoted.

  6. My family owns newspapers. I grew up working on a small-town daily newspaper. I like newspapers, and consider them superior medium to reading news on the web. I like sitting down and working my way through a newspaper.

    And I liked what Terry wrote about reporters in the old days. Those are the kind of folks I grew up with, but they were dying off. When I was working on the paper, I would train the J-major seniors who interned with us. Let me tell you, those budding WoodwardBernsteins really, really hated being told what to do by a 17-yr old kid. But someone had to teach them how to write an obit properly, and how to cover a county commission meeting.

    I hated the Strib’s style and bias. But I subscribed a few weeks ago, for the first time in years. I don’t want to see it go down. With all its flaws, the Strib had the resources, knowledge of local politics and space to do serious analysis of local issues. What’s more, because they had beat reporters who had reported on budget issues for years, they had people who could spot something odd–and follow it up.

    If the Strib goes down, what will replace it? Blogging is all well and good, but most blog posts link to some story in the big media. What are we going to link to–the Sun-Current? MinnPost?

    For all its flaws, the Strib is better than nothing.

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