Posts Tagged ‘press’

July 15, 2009

Newspaper Daze

By Cliff Barney

For the first time since I became literate, I don’t have a daily paper to read. My parents took two papers, the Providence Journal and its sibling, the Evening Bulletin; and I learned to read as I followed along while my father explained the comics and recounted the adventures of Peter Rabbit. I read those papers all through my youth and even had the Bulletin, which had better comics, mailed to me at camp in Maine in the summer.

Later the newspaper became a daily ritual; I enjoyed the layout and the headlines and the matter-of-fact writing, and I was fascinated by the scope and regularity of the coverage. Few Rhode Island sparrows fell without the J-B knowing; the papers had a bureau in every hamlet and a Washington bureau as well, and reported regularly from abroad. The newspaper gave me everything in a single venue; and it had some delightful quirks, such as the Journal’s habit of giving us two copies of the paper on holidays, when the Bulletin didn’t publish.

As an adult, I made a point, when traveling, to get the local paper and see how they did it. There was nothing that epitomized a city like its paper; they all looked different, yet they all, for better or worse, used the same matrix of news, sports, features, funnies, business, women (sorry), ads. So bewitched, I inevitably drifted into journalism myself and spent more than a dozen years working for the dailies, both big city papers (the New York Daily News, the old Annenberg version of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hearst San Francisco Examiner); a foreign stint for Stars and Stripes in Germany; the Journal-Bulletin after it sold itself to a Texas publisher; and the small-town Pawtucket (R.I.) Times, where I broke in. (The Times didn’t even try to compete with the Journal, but existed under the radar on a diet of local events, Rotary meetings, and bowling scores, where even the Journal couldn’t venture.)

The Daily Miracle

Although I began as a sports reporter, I spent most of my time on these papers as copy editor, news editor, and makeup supervisor. I learned how the paper was put together, and how it got out every day – the daily miracle, we used to call it, without affectation. It was a miracle, the process of putting together all of the pieces that made a newspaper, doing it every day, not to mention the constant remaking of each edition throughout a day.

It took hundreds of people to put out the Inquirer, gathering and editing news, casting it into type, getting that type wrapped around a press, distributing 600,000 copies – a million on Sundays – spread over five editions a day. Today (though no one would seriously try this except as a stunt), a single person could do most of the job: collect stories, write heads, design pages, get them onto a press. Only actual news, now abstracted as “content,” remains intractable; someone needs to go to the council meeting. Publishers are discovering, however, that there are ways around that problem; and as for actually getting the paper out, digital technology, accompanied by global hi-speed communications and some clever software, has leapfrogged print. The printers, in fact, have vanished; their union, the International Typographical Union, founded in 1852, later to become the main force behind the acceptance of the 40-hour work week, dissolved in 1986.

All of this has saved publishers a great deal of money, and yet they are not happy; the same process that has made it possible for newspapers to do without the printers has made it possible for the public to do without newspapers. News is available online 24/7, and you don’t have to recycle the medium. The uniqueness of newspapers has eroded.

The Shrinking Press

Even more important, the consolidation of ownership in all media, with attendant increase in the importance of shareholder profit, has weakened news coverage to the point where it no longer seems so consequential. Chain-owned newspapers began cost-cutting and offering staff buyouts in the 1990’s, while they were still making profits of well over 25 percent. In the glare of this relentless focus on the bottom line, journalism itself seems to be vanishing. Your paper is thinner in more ways than one.

Today, newspapers are shrinking — literally, in terms of the size of the page and the news hole, numerically, in terms of employees, and lately financially, leading to the failure of some well-established papers. Since my stint there, the Inquirer has lost half of its circulation and most of its reporters, and been sold from one stable to another like Black Beauty.

That’s why I don’t have a daily paper any more. I live within twenty miles of two dailies, both of them, as it happens, published by the same corporation, which operates more than fifty dailies in eleven states. One of the nearby dailies is a small-town paper that was sold by its local owners to the chain a few years ago. The other is the shell of a onetime major large-city paper, part of yet another chain, that was sold off as its corporate ownership floundered. Neither paper now delivers on its promise – neither small-town intimacy and sense of community, nor big-city scope and resources. They are more or less the same now, same typefaces, same features and comics, same bland local coverage.

Moving On

So I don’t subscribe, and surprisingly, I am finding that I don’t care. Though it be heresy among my journalist friends, I really don’t miss the paper. I read the news online, subscribe to a few magazines for perspective, and buy crossword puzzles by the book. With a few other journos of my generation, I swap horror stories by email of the death of print and reading; but I don’t join in the general hand-wringing. I am not convinced that either of print journalism’s plagues, economic or technical, is necessarily permanent so far as its readers are concerned.

Because in a sense, anyone with Internet access now owns a press, invigorating A.J. Liebling’s dictum that freedom of the press means most to someone who owns one. Anyone can publish today; and while the immediate result of this capability has been the bloviations of the blogosphere, one may expect that out of this great churn of independent, untrained reporters and writers will surely develop new cadres of a new journalism.

So far, most of the ventures into electronic journalism have turned on aggregating information obtained cheaply or for free elsewhere, presented according to algorithmic decision processes, and distributed by cleverly manipulated web searches. Once real journalists, such as those now being graduated from J-schools with no place to practice their skills, create their own online centers, that situation will change. I suspect that what’s next will surprise us, that blogging and twittering are nonce phenomena that will go away, or at least exist mostly as pure entertainment, and be replaced by a multiform, flexible media environment that can incorporate both affairs of state and the bowling scores. The new network and social connections that make this possible will make the old-fashioned newspaper irrelevant. I may never have a daily paper again, but its replacement could be equally as diverting.

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The Theater of the News at 28

June 7, 2009

The Theater of the News at 28


By Cliff Barney

It was at the very beginning of the Reagan administration that Lewis Lapham analyzed the process by which the nation’s press had become mixed with television, film, and pop culture to comprise “media,” an amorphous social entity that gave a continuous performance of what Lapham called “the theater of the news.” Himself a veteran of years in the editorial trenches at daily newspapers before becoming editor of Harper’s magazine, Lapham knew from his own experience that much of what eventually got into the paper was molded to fit an unspoken but agreed-on story of the day. His shining example was a Washington Post story about an 11-year-old African-American heroin addict, a piece that had the misfortune to win a Pulitzer Prize, leading to the revelation that no such 11-year-old existed. The prize had been given (and the story published), Lapham pointed out, because the story confirmed what the prize committee and the editors believed about African-Americans.

The Theater of the News, to call it by name, with capitals, is not always so lurid as the Post’s tale of race, childhood, and addiction. Lapham cites its persistence in the taking of “Third World” as the name of a real place as well as a convenient symbol, and in network television’s never-ending “troupe of celebrities [news anchors] transported with the ease of a Shakespearean scene change to Dallas, Vietnam, Chicago, Vienna, Washington, and the Afghan frontier. The technical and lighting effects were astonishing, the verisimilitude of the characters so startling as to make them seem almost lifelike.” This was in 1981; today’s digital phantasmagoria and breathless bloggery is even more hyperreal.

Staying with the Program

In effect, Lapham says, the news process has changed from one of saying “Here are the facts; what story do they tell?” to “Here is our story; what facts do we have that tell it?” And so today we are treated to routines showing Joe Biden as a blithering idiot, Sonia Sotomayor as racist/not a racist, depending on your allegiance, single payer health care as “off the table” and so needing no coverage. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show have a great deal of fun ridiculing these stories, but for all that, they continue. The issue is no longer what happened (what used to be called “news”); it is how what happened fits the current narrative.

Even in 1981, Lapham saw that the technological revolution was beginning to fragment the audience: “…instead of bringing people together, the sophistication of the new technologies has forced them farther apart and deprived them of the capacity to speak a common language.” This is a critical point, I think, and it is more so today, when the Internet and the blogosphere have multiplied the number of information sources. The fabled granularity of digital transmission has transformed us each into an audience of one, and I am encouraged to log in to “My Yahoo” or “me.com” or my special version of any act in the continuing news/entertainment vaudeville. This being the case, citizens are given no common vision, however accurate or inaccurate, of their society. Instead, Lapham concludes, we are “forever suspended in the revolving light show of names, issues, events, votes, hearings, treaties, wars, scandals, and final scores.”

Amateur Hour

It is for these reasons, for the fact that, as Lapham elsewhere puts it, that “news has moved out of the newspapers,” that, I think, newspapers are failing – not that they are being marginalized by blogs and free information. It is really absurd, when you think about it, that a major industry could be taken down by a ragtag bunch of amateurs – blogista writers who can barely write, reporters who do not bother reporting, there being no editors to urge them on, and a couple of smart-cookie digerati who saw quickly how they could give away what had previously been charged for. Against them newspapers could have marshaled a trained editorial army of many thousands. Yet, incredibly, these veterans have been fired and bought out, and newspapers have shrunk in every dimension in a relentless campaign to cut costs and maximize profits. With a few gallant exceptions, publishers have abandoned center stage and contented themselves with printing the playbill.

In the face of this near-collapse of a once fairly responsible press, Lapham himself has thrown up his hands and retreated to the bastion of the elite, rather like the nobles who shut themselves up in a castle and told each other stories while the Black Death raged among the population outside. One can hardly blame him, since the very nature of the Theater of the News makes any given publication just another act. Lapham’s castle emits a kind of modern Decameron every ninety days, the lavish Lapham’s Quarterly, in which a hundred sages and screwballs of all eras challenge the blogosphere in a collection of their pithier observations as they bear on contemporary issues, accompanied by illustrations so good that one can’t just glance at them. A noble effort, though clearly caviar to those with a taste for it.

However new forms are required, I think, for the mass of people wistful for a press that more accurately reflects their needs and desires. Newspapers are expanding their online activities, with varying degrees of success. It’s still not clear how reporting and editing staffs will be affected by this transition, or whether an independent press will be able to stand apart in the ongoing Theater of the News. There is a new cast of thousands waiting in the wings – the generation of young journalists with no place to go, who have matured just as their industry has been dying. One can hope at least that we are in for an exciting second act.

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