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Obsolescence, the Death of Newspapers, and All That

ISSUE:  Spring 1996

In the Philadelphia neighborhood where I grew up, there lived a man who fashioned the gilded Yiddish characters that kosher butchers affixed to their plate windows. Mr. Lazarus was always busy. His was an old craft, and as far as my child’s mind knew it had no beginning, would never end. Mr. Lazarus’s son Alex did not take up his father’s trade; he became a lawyer. A good thing, for eventually Mr. Lazarus was retired by an enthusiasm among butchers for neon signs.

Not many became lawyers in that neighborhood. Which is not to say we weren’t urged to strive. Get a trade! Bake bread; people have to eat. Try carpentry! Plumbing! You will always work. Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Our notions of durable occupations were not prescient, as whose are? Drake McDonnell wanted to be like his dad: wear a uniform with epaulets and operate an elevator in a downtown department store. Epaulets and elevators that required operators were on the way out by the time he left high school.

The prospect of obsolescence is always before us, if not always apparent. It weighs on the public mind these days. As usual, it is a consequence of breakneck advances in technology. These advances, some argue, are not of the magnitude of those that so altered life in the 19th century, when the electricity was first turned on, and devices such as the telegraph, radio, telephone, camera, and typewriter were invented. There has never been a communications revolution like that. Next to it, e-mail seems piddling.

Today people are losing their jobs owing to the computerization of the productive functions of the economy. The cyber world we are being ushered into regards information as its most valuable commodity. The expression “information-based society” is a bromide of the times. But that doesn’t mean that those of us in the business of gathering, processing and distributing information—news, in my case—are in any way insulated. On the contrary, the turbulence in the field seems to magnify our exposure.

Just how devastating a technological breakthrough can be was first impressed upon me in 1975 when I returned from Brazil, where I had spent three years as a correspondent for my newspaper, The Baltimore Sun. I had departed in 1972 vaguely aware that in the composing room just below the newsroom between 60 and 80 printers were at work shifting lead type around in steel page chases. It was an elemental, but by no means simple, process in the production of a newspaper. During my time abroad The Sun had shifted to a computer-assisted photographic system called “cold type” (as opposed to the “hot” lead type which was formerly used), and thereby annihilated most of the printers’ jobs. When I returned the typewriters in the newsroom had been replaced by computers with small screens, and the composing room downstairs was quiet where it had been clanky; it was clean where it had been inky; it was virtually empty, where it had been crowded. The linotype machines stood off in the corner awaiting disposal, dark and gothic, bereft of all utility.

Photographic composition, or cold type, swept the newspaper industry worldwide. It was fiercely resisted in Britain, This is not surprising. Britain, cradle of Luddites, is a conservative country with a deep syndicalist tradition. But in the end all collapsed before it. For good or ill, success rarely comes to those who stand before the juggernaut of a new system. And this is a good thing, for it is said that breakthroughs nearly always create more jobs in the long run than they dispose of in the short. That is the standard platitude advanced to encourage people to think they can grasp the course of events. Of course, even when true it does little to comfort the worker thrust into the street.

Journalists, until recently, have not been greatly troubled with thoughts of obsolescence. That was something that befell the blue collar ranks, the skilled manual workers who had mastered machinery which overnight became useless. Journalists regarded themselves as professionals attached to the craft of printing only by their obvious need for someone to put the words they write into a medium for delivery to a public. Journalists gather news, offer commentary. They write, most of us, in newspapers. People will always need newspapers. Won’t they?

These days the question does not elicit the positive response so reflexively as it once did. The decline of newspaper readership is a fact widely known. Circulations are slipping; layoffs, buyouts, “down-sizing” is the order of the day. Why is this happening? For many reasons, not all of which have to do with nuts, bolts or silicon chips. People’s tastes change, their living arrangements. Today, for instance, fewer people work in factories; more work in offices. They start later, return home later, too brain weary to relax with a newspaper. There are other distractions, the lure of the tube. As a result, evening newspapers—those which issue in the late morning and send their final editions out in the afternoon—are everywhere in decline. More than 500 of them have closed or switched to the morning cycle over the past 35 years, according to a recent article in Editor & Publisher.

All this is occasioned by the closing of The Baltimore Evening Sun last September. This was the sister paper of the more venerable Baltimore Sun, known in our homey town as the “Morning Sun,” or, more correctly, as “The Sun.” The two papers taken together were called the “Sunpapers” by the locals. The Evening Sun, which lived for 85 years, was the paper of H.L. Mencken. He enlivened its pages during his tenure at the apex of American journalism, as with his coverage of the Scopes Monkey Trial from Dayton, Tennessee, in 1924. In 1938, to make a point on federal featherbedding, he produced an editorial page with a million dots on it, each representing one federal employee.

The Evening Sun was everything the Morning Sun was not. It was exultantly for the hoi polloi, determined to contrast itself to the Morning Sun’s mandarin postures. It cultivated a fast and breezy style. It had to be out front: in 1920 it became the first newspaper in the country to use an airplane to gather news. It was endearingly fallible: In 1912 it ran a headline on its front page declaring “ALL TITANIC PASSENGERS ARE SAFE.” And for all this it was rewarded during much of its existence with a greater circulation than its prestigious sister paper, and the affection of the community insofar as that could be measured. It fit the city more comfortably, like a chammy shirt.

I came to Baltimore nearly 30 years ago, hired by Price Day, then editor-in-chief of the Sunpapers, to write editorials for The Evening Sun. After six years of that I transferred to The Sun, went into its Washington Bureau, then to South America as one of its correspondents. I spent the rest of my career in a variety of positions on the morning paper, including foreign editor and London bureau chief. The Evening Sun had no foreign bureaus. It had one man in Washington, 50 miles away, uncomfortably sharing office space with 16 or more reporters and editors employed in The Sun’s bureau, one of the largest in the capital. Nor did The Evening Sun use any of the Sun’s reports from beyond Baltimore. It was determinedly local; the lodestar of its universe was city hall and the State House in Annapolis.

The perceived extravagance of The Sun—its correspondents always flew first class, disposed of infinite expense accounts, employed maids and drivers and evidently lived like pashas in exotic foreign locales—engendered a certain resentment among the staff of The Evening Sun, convinced as they were that the profits secured by their enterprise helped finance the sumptuous circumstances of The Sun’s correspondents abroad. This was not proved.

It was not common to transfer from the evening to the morning paper. Not many Baltimore journalists had worked on both papers, but the experience did not engender any sense of esprit among those of us who had. Yet we felt a faint awareness of having been part of something, and when the end of that something was announced, its significance seemed to magnify. Softening the piquant sense of loss from The Evening Sun’s demise was our awareness that it had not really been viable for several years before its closing. It had become a newspaper in name only. Literally. It had its own masthead, or flag, but no army of reporters marched beneath it. Its “staff’ consisted of an editorial cartoonist, a few local columnists, Op-Ed page editor, and handful of copy editors. Every news page was just a replate from The Sun the day before. The people in Baltimore could see what was happening to The Evening Sun. Accordingly, they declined to buy it, and as its circulation fell the planners at the Times-Mirror Corp. (which owns The Sunpapers) in far off Los Angeles made their plans, which had nothing to do with newspapers or the culture they represent. But it was not technology, or cold blooded bean counters in warm California, that killed The Evening Sun. Just the ephemeral nature of taste, social change, economic shifts not foreseen nor fully understood even by those who believed they could manipulate them. These constitute the blind and vagrant force of obsolescence.

This anecdotal and very personal example, it is hoped, added to the colder numbers by now reflecting the decline of newspaper circulations all across the land, make the question more imperative: do Americans really want newspapers? The figures suggest an answer. According to Editor & Publisher yearbooks, in the five years from 1990 to 1994, 69 daily newspapers died in the United States, and only 33 were born. The decline, though not precipitous, seems inexorable.

Great plans were laid for the surviving morning paper in Baltimore. A new design (right out of the forties) was got up; more news space was promised. The management is determined that the remaining paper will be greater than the two it was formed from. The atmosphere surrounding its launch had them high on hope, as ambitious enterprises should do.

Yet an admonition to caution is in order. The growing enthusiasm for delivering news and entertainment electronically confronts newspapers with a challenge to their viability. No one of great stature predicts with any certainty the utter extinction of the medium. But dramatic transformations are expected, new formulas for more hurried times. Research Alert, a Brooklyn based group that tracks social trends, for instance, proclaims the ascendency of the USA Today format: stories that come in two sizes, short and shorter; bright color pictures; squibs, graphs, a plague of diagrams. Enter the newspapers of the Nineties—created by graphics designers and consultants who have won the souls of publishers and executive editors desperate for some means to arrest the decline. The newspaper, instead of being a cerebral experience, will be a visual one, an easy gulp. Lifted forever will be the unbearable density of print, line after line, word after word, on and on, like bricks in a wall. Is this an evolution, an adaptation of an old species into another form compatible to a new environment? Or is it a change so fundamental it really announces the death of a thing of great antiquity? It is, at the least, a sad diminution.

As a cultural artifact a newspaper is both ordinary and rare, bright and dull; nothing more accurately reflects the strengths and weaknesses of its creators. Like human beings, newspapers can be superb or irredeemable. They soar or they sink, though more sink than soar. Most are middling, ordinary, mediocre—as we are. Some try hard; some try not at all. Harold Williams, the retired editor of The Baltimore Sun’s Sunday features sections, said once in rebuttal of a criticism about an inaccuracy: “Every week the Sunday paper comes out with a million facts in it. The great majority of them we get right.” This provokes a compensating thought: newspapers of the future will bring many fewer mistakes into your breakfast nook, since they will be weighted with many fewer facts.

Whatever the changes or degredations that lay ahead for newspapers, one should not be left with the impression that a golden age is passing. Actually, when one looks at the average daily newspaper in America maybe the question to ask is not whether they are headed the way of the dodo, but how they lasted so long? Generally speaking they are dull and uninteresting things, anemic, parochial, and worse, proud of it.

I am not alone in this opinion. Most people in this country are familiar with only one or a few newspapers, and that is a condition that is advancing as papers fold leaving the remaining organ with a monopoly. If you live in New York, Washington, or one of the other more worldly metropolises, you may be served well enough by your local newspaper. The people of Baltimore, I think, still get their money’s worth in The Sun, which maintains national coverage and its own foreign staff, exceptional for a paper in the provinces. But most Americans are not so fortunate.

About 20 years ago a journalism professor and former editor on The Washington Post, Ben H. Bagdikian, took a slow journey from the East to the West coast, where he was taking up a position at the University of California. Along the way he read the local newspapers with his critical professional’s eye. That was the whole point of his painful oddessy. The papers he read stirred no interest. The space devoted to news was miniscule compared to that taken up by advertising. The writing was sloppy. The stories dealt with zoning fights, town and city council actions, cheery reports of the good works of the Rotarians, puffy features about local businesses. The editorials were suffused with Babbitry and chauvinism, celebrating all the wrong things.

Things haven’t changed much. Newspapers are still pretty bad. But that may not be the reason they are increasingly going unread. Journals even more trivial than the local daily are consumed with near frenzy. Supermarket tabloids, Vanity Fair, People magazine all seem to be thriving. It would be helpful if we who serve on traditional dailies could comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are simply victims of the general decline of literate culture. Which is to say, if people were reading less of everything, their reading less of newspapers would be more understandable. We would have at least the compensation of the innocent bystander, the comfort of our innocence.

But this does not seem to be available to us. An investigation into the state of reading in this country yields contradictory evidence. More books are being published and bought from a growing number of book stores and clubs. Book circulations are up in public libraries; magazines for every peculiar interest are coming out. According to Michael Thompson of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, which keeps up with such things, people are eschewing general interest journals in favor of specialized ones. But, then, consider the work of John Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. His studies show that people are spending fewer of their waking hours reading, and standard school reading tests continue to reveal a decline in that skill among the young. This paradox can be reconciled, or at least explained. But there is little equivocation where newspapers are concerned.

“I am showing an increase in the reading of books and magazines and decline in newspaper reading,” he told me in an interview in the spring of 1994. But the rise in reading of books and magazines, he added, is not so great as the decline in newspaper reading.

According to Paul Luthringer of The Newspaper Association of America, adult readership of daily newspapers has been falling since 1970, when 77.6 percent of the adults in this country read a newspaper on an average weekday. In 1994 that number had fallen to 61.5 percent of the adult population. Increases in the popularity of Sunday papers hardly compensate for the decline over the other six days of the week.

The thought that this trend might continue unarrested is a painful one to someone who gave his entire life to newspapers. It yields that particularly bitter taste of regret that attends knowledge of potential unfulfilled. One wonders what went wrong, if we could would we have done better?

Personally, I was disappointed with newspapers from the moment I took my first reporter’s job in 1962, on The Baltimore News-Post. This was a Hearst paper that went under in 1986, run out of business by the rich and muscular Sunpapers. I had just come out of a masters degree program in international relations and was expecting something different. Such training, I found, was not useful for work on a big city daily. The News-Post had more compelling, local obsessions.

What I recall most of those beginnings was that I didn’t work very hard and had lots of fun. That, it seemed, was the main attraction of newspapering. To this day, it’s still on offer. (Reporters have fun; editors go to meetings.) Fun, and the byline, back then, constituted the larger part of our compensation. You couldn’t live on the wage. There was something pleasantly feverish about that life; we raced through the night, ties flying. We wore hats! We visited with the cops and recorded plaintive tales of runaways. We always arrived in the aftermath to interview thrilled bank tellers. We watched as gray corpses were hauled from gray harbor waters, the crab-gnawed “floaters.” We saw ourselves as characters in a petty nocturnal opera. It was a yeasty passage, and we did our best to grow callouses on our bleeding hearts. Idealism? That became part of the profile later; it crept in after Watergate and as the pay got better.

Life was intense, but at its base the point of view was determinedly parochial. One turned the same corner too many times; the wit of the career police reporter who kept his own espantoon in his car began to fade when the conversation floated away from the precincts of petty crime or corruption at low levels. The city editor, always in the joint downstairs feeding his appetite for pinball machines and horse races, lost his allure. I wondered, was Ben Hecht ever bored by it all? We were always being reminded of riper times, the old days when newspapering was a better game; nostalgia passed for history and masqueraded as tradition. Paradoxically the only thing that mattered was what happened here and now.

Our interests and efforts were constrained by the newspaper’s culture. They were limited as much intellectually as they were geographically. One day, I proposed to my editor that I interview Milton Eisenhower, then president of Johns Hopkins University who had published a book about American policy in Latin America. He looked at me as if I were crazy, wondering where I might have gotten the idea such a story would fit within this diminished universe we were all crowded into so cosily. No one, he said, is interested in such things.

Here he was illuminating the keystone of American newspapering philosophy, which holds that just about everything that unfolds beyond the circulation area that resembles news must be of minimal interest to the folks back home if a connection to how they live is not immediately discernible—unless, of course, the item is extremely bizarre or spectacularly violent. The news selection in most papers reflects this philosophy to this day.

Why, I asked myself then, were we so closed to the world? It was a question to which I never quite got a satisfactory answer, though a couple of possibilities have presented themselves. Could it be that newspaper parochialism is fed from that spring of isolationism that supposedly flows just beneath the surface of our national life? Maybe it is dictated by the economic base common to nearly all American newspapers: they are regional organs, most of their advertising is local. We have no tradition of national newspapers in this country, such as exist in Europe and elsewhere, serious papers with wider constituencies, broader concerns. (The New York Times is, before it is anything else, New York’s newspaper.) In America, the first true national medium to emerge was network television, anticipated by the old coast-to-coast-hookups of radio days.

More recently conducive of this state of affairs has been the influence of readership surveys and focus groups, the procedures by which publishers ask ordinary people what they want to read about, and then strive to provide it. The addiction to these devices has always puzzled me, though at first glance they certainly seem to make sense. In a normal commercial exchange, if people tell you they want widgets, you sell them widgets. But newspapers are not in the business of selling widgets. They purvey news and convey ideas (or should) and the public’s certitude about their taste for these products is not firmly held.

When asked what they want to read, people almost always say they want news about their community. It would be surprising if they didn’t. So, confirmed in their strategies, newspapers continue to produce more and more local news, to look closer and closer at what is nearer and nearer. They zone their newspapers, create separate products for individual suburbs. They do all this, at great expense. And readership continues to decline.

But the question—what do you want?—as a way of finding the truth is flawed. It does not allow for the unpreconceived experience, the unexpected sensation. People ask for the familiar. That which is removed from them does not hold much space in their minds. But those minds can be stimulated by remote events if they are vividly described, and these events can come to dominate the imagination with even greater force than local occurences.

Mark Willes seemed to grasp this. In his first speech as president and CEO of Times-Mirror Corp., last June, he said: “Most people, while they think they know what they want to read, also like to discover new things while they read. For example, it might be that you weren’t all that interested in Bosnia until you read the first paragraph of the stories on Bosnia, and then all of a sudden you kind of got wrapped up in Bosnia.”

Mr. Willes was hired to improve the lagging performance of Times-Mirror’s stock. He is not a newspaperman; journalism is far removed from his experience. But his outsider’s eye may have spotted the weakness in our traditional strategy: our attempts to gather and produce only the news that fits the pre-existing expectations of readers.

Admittedly this line of criticism reveals a personal predilection fortified by the course my career has taken. It may or may not contribute to an understanding of the cause of newspaper decline. What it does, I hope, is to appeal for a broader, more comprehensive appreciation of the material with which we work. It goes beyond man bites dog.

News is a mysterious thing. It is hardly understood by people who have worked with it for generations. It is grasped more readily by the instinct than the intellect. Editors with long experience often confess that it is something they know when they see it and no other way. It is dynamic, not easy to elucidate. It is the motion and swirl of events and circumstance, the sensation felt from the energy that process creates, It is an experience that impresses itself upon the conciousness not only of those directly affected by those events and circumstances, but of those hearing about it, reading about it. Recall how transfixed this country was by the hostage crisis in Iran, by the exhilarating, if brief, uprising of democracy in China in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Great events like these constitute history. Newspapers, as the cliche goes, write its first draft.

Finally, I often wonder if the solons of the Fourth Estate realize that by asking readers what they want in their newspapers they are confessing that they don’t know what to do.

Perhaps they don’t, and who is to blame them? Certainty of purpose these days seems reserved to mass murderers and politicians. Anyone who is not confused in this world of cybernetics, multi-media, and turbonews (whatever that is) is simply drifting.

It is natural, I suppose, for one’s point of view to darken with age, no matter what the objective circumstances. But the number of daily newspapers is shrinking, as are the numbers of jobs on those papers, diminished by corporate overlords ordered to cut costs by reducing staff. The obsessive contemplation of the eschatology of newspapers can become heavy to those of us inclined to it, and even more tiresome for those who have to hear about it. It settles not at all well with those new reporters in the newsroom, all aglow in the springtime of their careers. These are the new cadres who have come to work, and will end up having fun. They have no time for thoughts of obsolescence; they are too busy saving the world.


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