THE BOTTOM LINE

Does the News Matter To Anyone Anymore?

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By David Simon
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?

Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of "All the President's Men" and "The Powers That Be" atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree -- we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.

What the hell happened?

I mean, I understand the economic pressures on newspapers. At this point, along with the rest of the wood-pulp Luddites, I've grasped that what was on the Internet wasn't merely advertising for journalism, but the journalism itself. And though I fled the profession a decade ago for the fleshpots of television, I've heard tell of the horrors of department-store consolidation and the decline in advertising, of Craigslist and Google and Yahoo. I understand the vagaries of Wall Street, the fealty to the media-chain stockholders, the primacy of the price-per-share.

What I don't understand is this:

Isn't the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium -- isn't an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?

It's hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity -- indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic -- was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.

Newsprint itself is an anachronism. But was there a moment before the deluge of the Internet when news organizations might have better protected themselves and their product? When they might have -- as one, industry-wide -- declared that their online advertising would be profitable, that their Web sites would, in fact, charge for providing a rare and worthy service?

And which, exactly, is the proper epitaph for the generation that entered newspapering at the very moment when the big-city dailies -- the fat morning papers, those that survived the shakeout of afternoon tabloids and other weak sisters -- seemed impervious, essential and ascendant? Were we the last craftsmen prepared for a horse-and-buggy world soon to prostrate itself before the god of internal combustion? Or were we assembly-line victims of the inert monopolists of early 1970s Detroit, who thought that Pacers and Gremlins and Chevy Vegas were response enough to Japanese and European automaking superiority?

My own experience is anecdotal, I admit. I was hired out of college by the Baltimore Sun in 1983 and worked there until the third round of newsroom buyouts 12 years later. When I came to Baltimore, the Sun was a dour gray lady, but one of unquestioned substance, and there were two competing evening papers. When I left in 1995, we were the last game in town, and the newsbeat-by-newsbeat attrition of veteran talent was well underway.

City to city, paper to paper, your mileage may vary. But I'm willing to trust in the Baltimore story enough to offer it up as an argument for the Detroit analogy.

Here's Baltimore in the mid-1980s:


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