Chapel Hill: Opinion

The press is dead, long live the press – Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross
Kirk Ross

Occasionally, the old guy who sat at the machine would get up, reach to his right and slide in another ingot or two.

The slugs of type came out the other side on a black braided wire. You took the type and put it in a wooden case. Then you gently rolled a little ink over the galley, put a long, skinny sheet of paper over the type and ran a roller down the length of it.

Once you flipped the piece of paper over it was time to dig in with a sharp pencil and fix everything that needed fixing using as few slugs as possible. Fast.

I learned to how to make newspapers when I was 14 years old, at the end of the era in printing when they still used molten lead to set type and photos were etched onto metal plates. It was a heck of a long time ago, but I can still smell it.

One of my favorite books is “A History of Printing in America” by Isaiah Thomas. It is, mostly, a description of various newspapers and was first published in 1810. The edition I have goes up to 1831. It runs 650 pages.

So get this: The press is not going away.

Last weekend at the university, there was a journalism conference with a discussion led by four Daily Tar Heel alumni who had been deep into the coverage of the presidential campaign. A day before the discussion the president of the United States of America had declared the press the enemy of the people. A day after the discussion the president rolled up in the people’s airplane to a rally in which he again declared that the press is the enemy.

In some places that gets people killed. Given the descriptions by the panel of hostility and threats on the campaign trail and the poisonous atmosphere of this winter of discontent I do not doubt that it can happen here. It’s happened before.

There’s certainly an all-out effort to silence, censor, shout down and probably even jail a few journalists. That’s happened before, too.

It is unfortunate that in times of disasters both man-made and otherwise, people realize how important the press is and those of us in it are reminded how relied upon we really are and how the real currency of this enterprise is trust.

It’s been a long struggle to reconcile that with the business of the press, most specifically a system that requires advertising inches and now page views to pay the bills.

The industry I grew up is not what it once was. But it is changing, adapting just as sure as it did when the photos came from a room labeled “engraving.”

The painful consolidation of the metropolitan newspaper industry is only one part of the story. Layoffs and cutbacks in coverage are driven more by factors unique to that segment of industry, but it’s clear that both trust and the truth have suffered as a result.

Still, there is reason to be hopeful, maybe even confident that the tide is turning. For all of the fascination with technology, driving traffic and new ways to tell stories, the importance of public-interest journalism and the act of reporting the news are returning to their proper place at the top of the value structure.

There are educators, organizations and entrepreneurs in this state trying earnestly to rebalance the media ecology so that it both thrives and remains true to its compact with the people. Most inspiring to me are new enterprises springing up in the media deserts.

I’ve held a lot of jobs in this business since I first started riding my bike to the print shop to play with hot lead. At this paper alone, I’ve done everything from paste up pages to interview saints.

These days, I get to work in the belly of the legislature in a shabby press room staffed with some of the sharpest people I’ve ever met. What happens in a newsroom is sacrosanct. It shall not be spoken of; that’s part of the code.

But I’ll tell you this. Nobody there is faking it, and nobody is backing down.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com 

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