Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Newspapers are dead, long live newspapers

By Bob Wilson

A few thoughts about newspapers and journalism at the end of 2015, and not coincidently the end of this column.

Slouching toward 74, I come from a world now largely vanished, from a great republic that I barely recognize, and from a craft at risk of losing its historic role as the fourth branch of government.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that American journalism will survive the culture wars. It will survive because there is no alternative to it in a democratic society.

Newspapers have enjoyed a special niche in the commons since the 16th century. They became the people’s surrogate, holding government accountable, promoting civil liberties and civil society, and, of course, printing the news.

That news could be corruption in the highest levels of government – think Richard Nixon and Watergate – as well as reports of neighborly goings-on such as Auntie Flo’s tea party for the ladies of the church.

That was a golden era of journalism, at least for those of us now in our golden years. The pay was low, but the fun made up for it, or so we told ourselves. Newsrooms were rich with eccentric but talented writers and editors.

Thanks to the movies, many Americans believed that alcoholism and nicotine were prerequisites for the craft, that editors were bellicose martinets, and that reporters were always yelling “Get me rewrite!” into black telephones.

There is always some truth in stereotypes, but on the whole journalism until the 1990s was not much different from any other workplace in its adherence to accepted standards.

The standard everybody knows is objectivity, always more of an ideal than an achievement, but nonetheless a yardstick of immeasurable value. Objectivity was a spinoff of reporting during the Civil War, when use of the military telegraph demanded short, succinct exposition of events.

Newspapers flourished in the postwar Gilded Age and through the 20th century. The big ones such as The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune became empires of ink, posting correspondents around the world.

But it was the hundreds of hometown papers, what the British call provincials, that most Americans relied on for news. Until the 1970s, many cities had morning and afternoon papers providing a feast of news, commentary and feature stories.

These papers were not always owned by the same company. In 1967, I went to work for The Nashville Tennessean, which had a joint operating agreement with The Nashville Banner. The Tennessean was a Democratic paper, the Banner was Republican – with a vengeance.

They shared the same building and production facilities, but that was the extent of it. The editorial hostility between the two papers was such that people said even their clocks didn’t agree.

It was delicious fun. Today the Banner, an afternoon paper, is long gone and the spiritless Tennessean is owned by Gannett, those wonderful folks who brought you USA Today.

What happened in Nashville also happened in many other cities and towns as afternoon papers failed and morning papers grew fatter without competition for print advertising. Classified ads became a vital, even dominant, source of revenue.

Chains large and small bought newspapers with easy money, often going deeply into debt, a decision they would regret.

Then came the Internet and the great sucking sound of classified ads moving to Craigslist, Angie’s List and similar sites. The result was devastating. No newspaper was immune to it, and by 2005 even giants such as the Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times were in trouble.

And then came the Great Recession in 2008, piling on newspaper failures and layoffs that continue to this day.

Unfortunately, another factor was and still is at work in some newspapers: the radical Left’s obsession with reforging society, which includes suppressing speech it considers offensive. The universities and their journalism schools must share some blame for this trend, which strikes directly at the First Amendment and the ideal of objectivity.

Worrisome, yes. But nothing’s wrong with journalism that a return to the old standards can’t cure. It’s what readers want and democracy needs.

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Writing a column is a rare privilege. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this one as much as I have writing it. Now it’s time for new voices and new vigor. My thanks and best wishes to Durham News editor Mark Schultz. He knows how to do it.

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