Out of Print

April 6th, 2008

The ever-reliable New Yorker checked in late last month with a long analysis on the fate of the newspaper industry. Entitled “Out of Print: The death and life of the American newspaper,” author Eric Alterman sounds no more cheerful than the rest of us as to where newspapers are headed. Early in the article he states: “Few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago.” He continues: “Few corporations have been punished on Wall Street the way those who dare to invest in the newspaper business have.”

Alterman, notes, as many have, to the changing newspaper readership demographic. He highlights the “ironic injustice…that when a reader surfs the Web in search of political news he frequently ends up at a site that is merely aggregating journalistic work that originated in a newspaper, but that fact is not likely to save any newspaper jobs or increase papers’ stock valuation.”

At the same time, he also notes that “no Web site spends anything remotely like what the best newspapers do on reporting. Even after the latest round of new cutbacks and buyouts are carried out, the Times will retain a core of more than twelve hundred newsroom employees, or approximately fifty times as many as the Huffington Post. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times maintain between eight hundred and nine hundred editorial employees each. The Times’ Baghdad bureau alone costs around three million dollars a year to maintain. And while the Huffington Post shares the benefit of these investments, it shoulders none of the costs.”

And now Alterman’s true thesis begins to emerge, when he writes that “it is impossible not to wonder what will become of not just news but democracy itself, in a world in which we can no longer depend on newspapers to invest their unmatched resources and professional pride in helping the rest of us to learn, however imperfectly, what we need to know…And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism.”

He continues: “In ‘Imagined Communities’ (1983), an influential book on the origins of nationalism, the political scientist Benedict Anderson recalls Hegel’s comparison of the ritual of the morning paper to that of morning prayer: ‘Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.’ It is at least partially through the ‘imagined community’ of the daily newspaper, Anderson writes, that nations are forged.

Alterman’s conclusion: “Finally, we need to consider what will become of those people, both at home and abroad, who depend on such journalistic enterprises to keep them safe from various forms of torture, oppression, and injustice. ‘People do awful things to each other,’ the veteran war photographer George Guthrie says in ‘Night and Day,’ Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play about foreign correspondents. ‘But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.’ Ever since James Franklin’s New England Courant started coming off the presses[in 1721], the daily newspaper, more than any other medium, has provided the information that the nation needed if it was to be kept out of ‘the dark.’ Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of ‘light’ that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed, is a question that even the most ardent democrat in John Dewey’s tradition may not wish to see answered.”

Eric Alterman’s view of the role of the daily newspaper is a traditional one, certainly not much in vogue amongst today’s Web enthusiasts. Bloggers are now hailed for providing “the kind of ‘light’ that is necessary to prevent terrible things” and again the Web enthusiasts take great pride in pointing to important stories that were uncovered first in blogs, stories that the conventional news media had overlooked.

Are blogs and news aggregation Web sites truly going to supplant the role filled by newspapers for several centuries? The question may remain unanswered until the last newspaper shuts its doors.