Two friends from different solar systems, a Manhattan litigator and a Kentucky novelist, sent me home-burned CDs that included the same song, "James River Blues" by the Old Crow Medicine Show. A boatman's lament from the time when railroads replaced the packet boats on Virginia's James River, it's a sad song about the end of an era, a trade and a way of life. It made me think of the John Henry steel-drivin' songs ("Lawd, I'll die with a hammer in my hand"), and I realized that a lot of our American folklore and folk music, from Paul Bunyan and his blue ox to the cowboy myth that never seems to die, was inspired by a common nostalgia for what the workmen did, and will never do again.
"I'll become a memory," sings the sorrowful boatman. Finding "James River Blues" on both of these CDs struck me as an omen, at a time when my own imperiled profession seems to be going the way of the riverboatman, the lumberjack and "the Old Lamplighter of long, long ago."
Years ago when I was a columnist for The Buffalo News, a droll colleague named Ray Hill invented a nursing home for decrepit reporters that bore the name "At -30-." (For those who never worked in a pre-computer newsroom, "-30-" was what we traditionally typed to mark "The End" of every story.) Ray circulated so many memos about events at "At -30-"—cookouts, free CAT scans, bingo nights—it took months for literal-minded cub reporters to figure out that the place was apocryphal. But "At -30-" is swiftly becoming the reality for all of us who earned a living in the outmoded print media of the 20th century. No less than John Henry or a washed-up bunkhouse wrangler in a sad cowboy song, I'm amazed to discover that I have outlived my profession.
Optimists never thrived in our business. We've grown used to the grim headlines: "Newspaper Circulation in Steep Slide Across Nation," "Young Adults Are Giving Newspapers Scant Notice," "A Sluggish Second Quarter For Newspaper Industry," "More Dangers for Journalists" (about the 106 journalists killed on the job last year, a record), along with a steady diet of stories about layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks, chains shuffling wounded papers like playing cards and editors resigning under pressure. Even the purchase of the Wall Street Journal by the tabloid predator Rupert Murdoch felt less alarming than inevitable, a kind of nasty thrill for the masochists we've become. But the worst news comes by word of mouth. This spring the untimely deaths of two memorable journalists, David Halberstam and Molly Ivins, brought hundreds of their contemporaries together to remember their exploits and compare notes on the state of the press, in this seventh year of the sorriest of all presidencies.
The painstaking, relentlessly focused master reporter from New York and the hard-living, horse-laughing political columnist from the Texas Bush leagues had little in common, on the surface. What they shared was a stubborn sense of outrage and the rare guts and gifts to tell their truth and make it stick. Old friends and colleagues gathered to recall the young Halberstam in Saigon, ringing the commanding general at home at night and informing the general's furious subordinate that he'd do it every time it was necessary because he worked for the Times, not the Pentagon. At the 40th reunion of the class of 1967, which she missed by just a few months, Ivins' classmates at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism read each other some of her most outrageous lines, toasted her famous mooning of the Ku Klux Klan and played tapes of that big Lone Star laugh we'll never hear again.
These ceremonies were leavened with irreverence and high spirits; every pew at Manhattan's Riverside Church was filled with Halberstam's friends, mostly tough old newsroom types who pretended not to be impressed when Paul Simon came out with his guitar to sing "Mrs. Robinson." No tribute to Ivins could proceed without liberal measures of the humor that defined her. The only time funeral shadows seemed to lengthen was when someone mentioned the critical condition and clouded future of the free press our fallen comrades served so well. The only hopeful spin came from current editors of beleaguered newspapers and current administrators of journalism schools—the people, in other words, whose jobs depend on sustaining the impression that all is not lost.
The consensus is much darker. And the more senior the observer, it seemed to me, the more pessimistic the assessment. An Aug. 16 essay by Russell Baker in The New York Review of Books sums up the anguish shared by these decorated veterans who were, in my time, American journalism's most distinguished practitioners. Baker, whom I think of as a friend and certainly a role model (strange how older role models still in fighting trim are becoming so scarce), is known as a generous humorist and a graceful memoirist of the pre-modern era when empathy and sentiment were still permissible, before the genre was overrun with wailing, whining and indecent exposure. If anyone could find a silver lining, if anyone could supply at least a thin sugar-coating for this bitter pill of obsolescence, Baker would be your man. But the only hint of a ray of light, which he may or may not have added himself, was the question mark appended to his article, "Goodbye to Newspapers?"
It's hard to dispute that the newspaper is doomed in the long run, as an inefficient and wasteful medium that technology can easily improve upon. I've never argued that point, in spite of my personal feelings—certainly not on Sunday mornings as I peel off the two dozen junk sections crammed into my local paper, fill a garbage bag with them and wonder which shady grove of whispering pines was sacrificed to make the wretched things possible. Compared with audio-visual advertising, they're also a primitive, low-yield way to deliver a commercial message.
But the key point of understanding is that while the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace old ones there's no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly. As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill—a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the workforce and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic.
"Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product," writes Baker, in no mood to be amusing. "Papers everywhere felt relentless demands for improved stock performance. The resulting policy of slash-and-burn cost-cutting has left the landscape littered with frail, failing or gravely wounded newspapers which are increasingly useless to any reader who cares about what is happening in the world, the country and the local community."
The villains of this drama are obvious ones, conspicuous players with nowhere to hide; Baker points his finger at myopic technophiliacs who fail to comprehend what's happening, and corporate carnivores who know precisely and couldn't care less. He quotes a speech by John Carroll, who took the Los Angeles Times to its finest hour, in the standard terms of Pulitzers and prestige, and just months later resigned as editor rather than implement bloodthirsty staff cuts. "Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to its community, that it is beholden to the public," a chastened Carroll told an audience of his peers. "What do the current owners want from their newspapers? The answer could not be simpler: Money. That's it."
The Tribune Company, the grasping conglomerate owner that strangled the Los Angeles Times, has been entertaining a buyout offer from an "angel," Chicago real estate megabillionaire Sam Zell, who's on record saying "there is no difference" between running a newspaper and managing any other for-profit business. If that isn't irony enough, Zell's nickname is "The Grave Dancer," for his ability to spot moribund properties and exploit them profitably. How I'd relish the opportunity to lecture him on the difference between owning a newspaper and owning a mall. Carroll argues that these corporate leviathans are "genuinely perplexed" by journalists—"people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder. What makes these people tick, they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense. ... Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome." If we believe Carroll, who ought to know, nothing we ever held sacred is safe from jungle capitalism and its harsh ideology, as we might have guessed from the awful mess the free market has made of American health care. Citing Carroll and Washington Post owner Donald Graham as his star witnesses, Baker comes to the radical conclusion that "free-market capitalism doesn't really work very well in the newspaper business, and if rigorously applied, tends to destroy it."
"Angels" who come to the rescue of shareholders smell a whole lot like vultures to me. And the vultures are circling. They may not grasp much of what it took to put this country together, but they have keen noses for carrion. If Zell is the Grave Dancer, "The Grave Digger" is a fitting nickname for Murdoch, that successful devourer of sick newspapers whose purchase of the Journal feels like one of the last big nails in our collective coffin. I picture Murdoch with dirt on his shovel and the WSJ lying there next to the hole he's digging, not quite dead but very pale and breathing irregularly. Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to news in America was when Murdoch put the word "Fox" next to it. His gross pollution of the media mainstream in Australia, Great Britain and now the USA secures his place in history as an archenemy of the English language itself.
But the Dancer and the Digger are merely broad-shouldered, beady-eyed wealth magnets, crude engines designed by nature for the mindless multiplication of property. A world gone desperately awry gives them far more credit and attention than they deserve. If newspapers achieve extinction, along perhaps with "the news" as we knew it, only the liberals will blame Rupert Murdoch. He's an end-game player. The newspaper industry stood with a foot in its grave long before Murdoch became an American citizen (for the sole purpose of circumventing the law that only an American citizen can own a television network).
Print is the loser in what serious thinkers like to call "a paradigm shift." When television was invented, everyone recognized its power—advertising, entertainment and journalism, in that order of precedence, would never be the same. But in the beginning only a handful of prescient observers warned us of its shortcomings and its dangers. It was clearly addictive, for one thing, and as a medium oddly depthless and disengaging. You could encounter it without experiencing it, critics noted, or experience it without absorbing it. Unlike print, it seems that TV fails to draw you out of yourself. So children raised in the sickly glow of the cathode ray became a race of narcissists, culminating in a generation defined by MySpace and YouTube. The myth of Narcissus is the perfect metaphor: The boy not only falls in love with his own image reflected in the water, but is unable to see or judge the depth of the water beneath. Young people who waste countless hours in trivial e-mail, cell phone and text-message conversations are addicted, like the classic narcissist, to constant, obsessive mirroring. Their curiosity about the "real" world is profoundly in question; what's known for certain is that they don't read newspapers. The latest Harvard study found that only 16 percent of its sample of Americans under 30 read a newspaper regularly. For under-18s, readership dropped to 9 percent. Even more demoralizing was the evidence that other media were not taking up the slack in their news habits—most of them had no news habit whatsoever. The news, I guess, tends to be about other people.
"We found that most young adults don't have an ingrained news habit," said Harvard professor Thomas Patterson, who directed the survey. Time spent on the Internet or watching television only rarely involved news, and TV, often the Comedy Channel, was twice as likely to be its source. Video games—violent fantasies—are a far more common habit among Americans under 30. Television has left the news industry with a drastically altered population of consumers. (Consider the implications of another study reported in The New York Times, showing that 40 percent of American infants are regularly exposed to TV and videos by the age of 3 months, and that 90 percent of 2-year-olds have a steady habit.) As a news medium, TV was just beginning to realize its tremendous potential when the corporate overlords discovered that dumbed-down, sexed-up news shows could generate exciting profits. It's been mostly low-budget show business ever since. But at least TV journalists can share their memories of a Golden Age when Cronkite was king and Moyers was mainstream.
Nearly everyone agrees that the Internet, not television, will inherit whatever remains of "the press" when the curtain comes down on the Age of Print. Even with the ruinous AOL-Time-Warner marriage as a cautionary tale for those who leap too soon, media types agree so unanimously and pursue cyber-dreams so avidly that nagging doubts go unaddressed.
"How the Internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you that it will," cautions Russell Baker. "At present about 80 percent of all news available on the Internet originates in newspapers. ... No Internet company has the resources needed to gather and edit news on the scale of the most mediocre metropolitan daily."
"The Internet," he concludes, "is basically an electronic version of the 10-year-old boy who used to toss the newspaper on the front porch: an ingenious circulation device."
Baker knows these are fighting words to cyber-zealots, for whom the Internet has become as much a religion as a useful technology. But the facts defy enthusiasts; at the moment there is neither an economic nor a professional model that supports the Internet's claims to maturity as a news medium. "Professional" has become something of a dirty word in this time of transition, especially to the fierce legions of "bloggers" who are the samurai warriors of cyberspace and who, in spite of chronic excesses, can legitimately claim to have defended the public interest when newspapers were intimidated or asleep.
I know they're easy to offend and hard to pacify, but considering my grim situation—admittedly obsolete, on the waiting list for a corner room at "At -30-"—I hope they'll hear me out on the subject of professionalism. I took the trouble to get a master's degree in journalism, though I always questioned whether it ought to be an academic discipline. I've practiced the trade in one form or another for most of 40 years. To claim that I can be replaced by anyone with an Apple and an attitude is inherently insulting, is it not? It implies what you might be hesitant to imply about any other profession, that what I know is worthless. No doubt the news trade's easier to master than astrophysics or neurosurgery; but you're naïve and arrogant if you imagine that nothing is lost when volunteers take up our jobs. (I use "volunteer" because "amateur" and "hobbyist" are pejorative and provocative.)
Let me put it this way: At any moment there are 40,000 stories out there claiming to be the gospel truth. Many of them are good as gold, presented by people with the best intentions; many are lies and distortions sponsored by people with the worst. Most are muddle and nonsense. It takes years of experience or constant immersion in the news cycles, or both, just to begin to sort them out. The most plausible, professional sources are often the most ruthless liars, and usually the most generously funded. Never in history has so much sinister talent, or so much money, been committed to creating, shaping, manipulating, dominating or suppressing the stories we hear or don't hear. A blogging orthodontist with a genius IQ is no match at all for Karl Rove, Roger Ailes or Rupert Murdoch—believe me. It's not even David vs. Goliath, it's Goliath vs. Tinkerbell.
The Internet tends to present all 40,000 stories and let the bewildered consumer sort them out. That's free speech, absolutely. Journalism, not necessarily. I'm inclined to admire the open-mic populism of what they call "the blogosphere." Citizen initiative is a rare and precious resource. But "blog eat blog," a free-for-all that shares DNA with the "I'm Right, she's Left, we're both furious" dogfights that trivialize TV news shows, will never be the salvation of the First Amendment. "And the center is not much in evidence," one aide to a presidential candidate reminded me. Some observers object more strenuously. A much-quoted book of late (much quoted, no doubt, by working journalists) is The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen. According to Keen, a disenchanted technocrat from Silicon Valley, the Internet "is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent." The celebrated British novelist Ian McEwan, noting the current purge of newspaper book reviewers, concurred. "Publishers seem to be very keyed up to embrace the Internet," said McEwan, "but I don't have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone's view is as good as anyone else's."
A thousand amens to that. Applied promiscuously, specious doctrines that privilege equality over quality have cast a dark shadow over literature and the arts, and may well eliminate literacy of the sort we dinosaurs were trained to respect. But I'd offer the Internet a more substantial olive branch. Blogs flourished in part because gutted newspapers and gutless networks left such a gaping vacuum, especially when the Iraq war was being sold deceitfully. Bloggers could reduce their pulse rate and curb their belligerence without losing their competitive edge, and they'd profit from some of the humility that circumstances have forced on us, their all but defeated predecessors. I noticed that developing "professional standards" was one of the goals discussed at the recent bloggers' convention, where Democratic presidential candidates came to flatter them and lined up to kiss their laptops. Just admitting that they lack those standards is a start. At present they should think of themselves as vigilantes. If you study American history closely, you see that vigilantes and citizen militias were often indispensable. They held off the redcoats and tamed the untamable West. Last week in Salem, Mass., I heard a wild 18th-century story about maritime vigilantes who captured and hanged a crew of murderous pirates. But vigilantes also lynched a lot of innocent people. No matter how much we admired citizen initiative, we wouldn't vote to eliminate the police.
In this time of public apathy, the Internet's spirit impresses me more than its performance. When you show me how Web sites and blogs will generate enough revenue to feed, house and clothe the next generation of full-time truth hunters unashamed to call themselves journalists, I'll shelve my skepticism and join the parade. Either way they'll replace us, at least in the sense that they'll be here when we are gone. And The End may be much nearer than clueless luddites like me can calculate. According to Joel Auchenbach of the Washington Post, a committed blogger, cyber-marketing technique—tracking page views or "eyeballs" minute-to-minute—is already corrupting editors hungry for readers. In the wired, market-driven newsroom, O.J. Simpson trumps global warming every time.
In the meantime, shell-shocked veterans of the news wars meet to reminisce and commiserate, and dissect the latest round of bad news. Not every gathering is as solemn as a memorial service. In June, a few of us who used to work for The Buffalo Evening News—old teammates of the late humorist Ray Hill—met for dinner at an Italian restaurant in that failing but hospitable city. We're not terribly old, but these were reporters who in their prime used typewriters, and editors who used pencils. Attention, historians. We came late and reluctantly to computers, those infernal, insubordinate tools that still remind me of Mickey Mouse's demon broom in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. (Bless the memory of the humble typewriter, that innocent faithful tool with no secrets or surprises, no agendas or affiliations, no will of its own.)
We were good, too, as individuals and as a team. I was never known as a team player, but in the days of big family-owned papers, before the chains took over, you felt as if you were part of a team instead of a machine. In the '70s, my friends and I held all the jobs most coveted in our day, and most expendable during the current decline: columnist, critic, investigative reporter, cartoonist, editorial writer, rewrite man. We were well paid, we were members of the Newspaper Guild—I still carry my expired Guild card—we were fairly impressed with ourselves and with each other. Warren Buffett, the billionaire who could have bought any newspaper, bought the News when we were on staff.
That was then. Only one of my old colleagues still works for the paper; most of them left the newspaper business years ago. If lives were news stories, let's say our leads have been written, the facts assembled and the point of view established, and we're a few thoughtful paragraphs from wrapping it up. It was great to see them, great to drink some wine and recall a time and a newsroom that already seem prehistoric. A bunch of old newshounds baying at the moon, and staring "At -30-" square in the face.