Media Matters
Authors of Their Own Doom

By William Murchison on 2.2.09 @ 6:10AM

Just what I needed: more bad news about the news business. My business, one way or another since 1964, when I labored not only as general assignments reporter and feature writer for a small-town newspaper but also took photos and, yes, converted same to plastic engravings via that technological wonder, the Fairchild Scan-A-Graver.

I have been around. How I sympathize now with James Warren's morose reflections on the Atlantic's Internet site concerning the acute need for newspapering even as the customers for our grand old product drift away. He writes: "Newspaper penetration -- the number of households looking at a paper -- now amounts to less than 18 percent of the population, compared with 33 percent back in 1946.…Papers are throwing out employees almost weekly, cutting national and foreign bureaus if they have them.…In some cases, entire newspapers are shutting down."

Yes, it's awful, and Warren, a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune (before getting the boot from new owners), is well positioned to talk about the consequences. He wants to know who's going to cover the news if newspapers can't and won't. Not the websites, surely, with their communal/generational approach to the news and their dependence on bloggers and columnists. What about all the respect and friendship that newspapers built up over eons? (I'll come back to that one.) Who's going to write the stories in which newspapers specialize -- the deep stories that win Pulitzers and sometimes result in new laws, as did -- Warren reminds us -- the Tribune's exposures of lead-painted Chinese-made toys and of dangerous baby cribs.

I said it before, and I'll say it again: awful. If only because we tactile folk want to hold in our hot hands something arranged and prioritized by people paid to arrange and prioritize.

Nor have I have solutions to offer. The market (when, as in the present case, allowed by statists actually to work) is cold and unforgiving , like a vulture in the Serengeti. Whatever the marketplace repudiates or depreciates isn't long for this world. But I think it useful to talk. I am far from convinced the newspapers aren't to some degree the authors of their own soap opera. No trend ever has a precise starting point, but I think a strong case can be made for dating the newspapers' plight from 1974. Does that ring a bell? We were then just winding down a political cataclysm, one known colloquially as Watergate.

It didn't look much like a moment of decline, rather one of triumph. A pair of newspapermen , as Americans were regularly invited to acknowledge, had contributed significantly to the downfall of a president who, as public officials sometimes will, thought he could do what he wanted to. Well, no… he couldn't.

My point is not that newspapers began some time in the aftermath of Watergate to pursue a confrontational, finger-pointing approach to news coverage, especially with Republicans and conservatives as the targets. Many papers did so; nevertheless, my main point is an auxiliary, and less noisy, one. It is that, due in large measure to Watergate, and the go-get-'em, spirit Watergate inspired in the liberal breast, the relationship of the business to the customers began to change. There appeared in newsrooms, from the '70s on, larger and larger numbers of people largely unlike those who had populated that workplace earlier.

If I am wrong about this, at least I have been telling the story the same way for quite a while, based on first-hand observation. The story is of a profession invaded and subjugated by a type of journalist far less like the average reader than like, well, the members of a political science seminar at an upscale Eastern or West Coast university. That's irrespective of whether such journalists ever caught sight of a college seminar room. They tended to see journalism as a platform for identifying, investigating, exposing, and addressing social and political grievances: such grievances as often enough the customers didn't see for themselves, but here was a new breed of newsmen to show them what they had missed.

The old-style newspaperman whom I came to know face to face in the '60s was a differently colored nag. He -- he usually was that -- had far likelier attended a state school than Yale or Harvard or Berkeley, assuming he went to college at all. He was jocular and irreverent in a newspaperly sort of way. Never slugged down a drink of whiskey he didn't like. Dressed with minimal attention to fashion.

Our old-style guy, over a draft Bud at the bar in the next block, liked to rhapsodize about how much better, given the chance, he and his comperes could run the city desk than did the poor dumb city editor. He generally lacked a sense of social importance or professional entitlement. Liked cops and kids and soldiers. Tended to job-jump. Sometimes made up a quote or a name and put it in a story just to see if he could get it past the copy desk. Drove a Ford or a Chevy, rarely brand-new. Sported nicotine stains on bony fingers. Didn't like hippies. Voted -- here's what you were really wondering about -- conservative, or something approaching it.

A couple of decades after I got to know him, his like was gone. People of his sort didn't go into newspapering anymore. People with master's degrees in English literature from Columbia did; people inherently suspicious of the mores and institutions and personalities dominant in America before the tumultuous Sixties. The newsroom became an unlikely place to search for affirmation of middle-American norms.

I wouldn't for a minute posit that my old friends of the pre-1974 newsroom were a superior class of news-gatherers and communicators. They were different. In some sense they were of the readers, by the readers, for the readers. The categories overlapped -- readers and writers and reporters. They knew one another. The reporters knew what readers liked and tried to deliver it to them. It was a good commercial marriage.

After Watergate the paradigmatic reporter was a man -- or, now, a woman -- with a high-minded mission; namely to instruct society concerning its tastes and habits; to improve things. No problem there -- a little improvement never hurt anyone. Problems arose only when the bearer of news arrived at the home of the recipient of news with the look of a doctor preparing a rabies injection.

The politics of the breed of reporter who entered the business after Watergate was, most of the time, liberal. That was part of the problem but not the essential part. The essential part was the tendency of this breed of reporter to misunderstand what readers wanted, meaning a combination of information and entertainment, with some political philosophy thrown in, as long as the philosophy in question didn't grate or offend deep instincts.

The readership of the American newspaper was middle-class, patriotic, churchgoing, optimistic. Along came these guys (and, subsequently gals) from Columbia U. and Berkeley to tell readers just how morally burdened and ripe for reform their country was. It wasn't precisely what the customers wanted to hear. In fact, it was the opposite of what they wanted to hear.

To the old breed of American the new breed of reporter and editor seemed always to be complaining, particularly about those less interested in overhaul of existing arrangements: moral, spiritual, political, whatever. The new breed seemed always to be waggling its forefinger in readers' faces: Now, now, this just won't do; come on, we've got to move forward.

Conservative editorial pages turned left. Brides' pages went away. Tofu, reggae, Madonna, films with Susan Sarandon, and books by Bret Easton Ellis found their champions on reviewing staffs. Staff photographers went on the street with instructions to seek racial and sexual diversity among subjects. Four-letter words -- not the whole range, put part of it -- began to appear in print. Coverage of religious news waned. Coverage of GLBT's waxed.

The sellers (publishers) had begun telling the buyers (readers) what was good for them. Their insistence had predictable effects. First the customers scratched their heads in puzzlement. Then they balked. They looked elsewhere for the information and entertainment they wanted. More and more the newspaper exasperated or just plain bored, with its high-minded earnestness about matters more entrancing in the seminar room than in front of the home coffee pot. Pulitzer Prizes went to endeavors such as a wonky and stultifying series on how the federal government investigates plane crashes.

A thesis as broad and encompassing as mine is subject to a million objections. The best newspapers always have led their communities. (Yes, they have.) The new breed of newsman brought much to the profession by way of knowledge and understanding. (True.) The old breed could be provincial and unintelligent when not dead drunk. (Also true.) Life is more than Perry Como and the St. Louis Cardinals. (Yes.) The papers sell an old product that can't compete easily with the instantaneity of the Internet. (Just so.) Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. Even styles in communication. (Yes, yes, yes.)

Here's the crucial element: The old, long-gone owners, editors, and reporters knew better than to make themselves tedious and irksome to the readers. They knew you don't sell papers that way.

"Don't bore the customers. Don't lecture them either." Really, why isn't such a remarkable piece of wisdom engraved above the front door of every newspaper building in the land? Because the right to bore and lecture in the name of post-Watergate Uplift and Reform and Improvement is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Ah. So is the right -- widely practiced, I fear -- to tell the paper boy, scram, kid.

William Murchison is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and author of Mortal Follies: Epsicopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity, to be published by Encounter Books on March 1.