A couple of Sunday mornings ago I scanned the front page of the New York Times and noticed immediately that something was strange and different: There were three stories that made me smile, and feel optimistic about the future. This was way beyond the usual quota of smiley stories on the Times’ front page, which, these days, generally ranges from zero to the occasional one.
There was a triumphant tale about a soccer team made up of New York City homeless men who’dbanded together to beat a team of bankers. They’re part of a national homeless soccer league. It was the ultimate feel-good saga: the story of a group of men who are finding confidence and self-esteem in banding together to play a sport. Another revolved around a series of interviews with African-American citizens across the nation. It suggested that, for the first time, African-Americans are beginning to feel optimistic about race relations in America. The third took a look at President Obama’s teaching days as a way of predicting his Supreme Court judge nominee, and suggested that he or she might be someone who isn’t defined by past ideological stances – just someone who happens to be really good at their job.
There was something about reading these stories on a printed page that no blog or website account could ever make me feel. They were well-written. They were well-edited. They were well-researched. They felt as if they had weight. Of course, the cynic in me had to wonder: as the newspaper industry seems to be collapsing before our very eyes, were the Times’ editors consciously trying to accentuate the positive, in the hopes of keeping the Times alive? Maybe the editor’s story selection just reflected that we’re feeling optimistic. I do know this: for me, reading about that optimism in a newspaper made it realer than if I’d read it on my laptop between e-mails.
It’s been a good couple of very good weeks for the struggling – okay, failing — newspaper business. Last week, Senator John Kerry convened Senate hearings on the future of journalism, just about the time that the Times Corporation announced that The Boston Globe would apparently survive – for now, anyway. And the president himself declared, at the White House correspondents’ dinner, “A government without newspapers is not an option for America.” And in Maryland, congressman Benjamin Cardin introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act.
Less noticed was a one-day think tank in Washington last week called “The Future of Context.” And while the name of the conference was typically New Media – what does “the future of context” mean, exactly? — a passel of distinguished journalists did us all a service by gathering to not only examine the future of how we’re going to get the news, but discuss where newspapers have gone wrong. And they have. The print media is hardly blameless for its shaky status.
Like the men in Detroit who ignored the warning signs and continued to build mechanically and socially obsolete cars, the news corporations turned their backs on the internet back when they could have seized the new information technology for their own. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but it’s not like they couldn’t have seen the new media coming. Hearst, Knight-Ridder, Gannett – they were all at the nexus of the information flow, for half a century. They sneered at the internet, and their pride resulted in a huge and humbling fall.
But the recent flurry of debate is a very good sign. There’s some real passion out there. As a veteran of five different newspapers, from the very small to the very large, I’d like to think it signals a beginning, not an end. At least we’re talking about ways to save this dinosaur, and give it a chance to evolve and adapt.
There’s something primal and permanent about words when they’re written down and you can hold them in your hand. It’s not coincidence that the first civilization, in the river valleys between the Tigris and the Euphrates, produced the first writing. In the 5,000 years that have since passed, civilization and the written word – the word you can hold in your hand, on a tablet, on a page – have been synonymous. If we ever get to the point where we completely replace the printed daily news with words we can erase with a single keyboard click on a MacBook, I think we’ll have lost something more than news. I think we’ll have lost sight of how important it is to know what’s going on around us, and to be thinking about it. The news – and the commentary, and the analysis –will feel, somehow, slighter.
But the more I think about why we have to save the newspapers it, the more I think there’s something else we can’t lose: teamwork. What’s special about being a newspaper writer isn’t seeing your name in the byline, or seeing your picture above a column. That’s fleeting. I learned that the day I wrote my first column for the extinct New Haven Journal-Courier. One day, there was my picture, next to my words. The next day, I was walking next to a shut-down New Haven factory when I saw my picture, at my feet, on a yellowed day-old page blowing down the street. So much for ego.
No, what’s important about the newspaper news is the team. Working in a newspaper newsroom, where you’re surrounded by writers and editors who are counting on you to get the story, and get it right, is like being in a locker room, or backstage when you’re in the cast of a play: everyone counts on you to do your part. And so you do. Because you’re part of something bigger than you.
I’m not saying that bloggers and webmagazines can’t get us the news. If you know how to search the web, you know how to find the news. If you can put it together quickly, with attitude, at your kitchen table, in front of your TV, you’ll have a place in the new media. But you’ll do it alone. And that’s no fun.
So while we’re at it – let’s get serious here – do website reporters get to celebrate after they break their stories, at some divey bar, with the team that helped make it happen? Surrounded by other reporters, and editors, and cops, and other low-lifes? If the papers go down, so will a lot of pride in telling the truth. And a lot of great celebrations that go with it.
Three decades ago, when I was a late-night copy editor in the sports department at the Washington Post, I was mostly responsible for getting the late boxscores from the coast, and writing the headlines on late-night wire stories. At the end of the night I used to drink at a place called the Post Pub with a really cute girl who was a late-night copy editor in the financial section. After we closed our sections, we’d leave the newsroom about one or two in the morning, walking through the lobby, where, through the glass walls, we could see the huge presses rolling out the next edition. We could even smell the hot ink.
Then we’d walk a few blocks to the Post Pub, have a few beers, and talk about the day, about the news, surrounded by other reporters and writers. All of them still buzzing with energy: the energy of being in the newsroom that day, that night. That week. Of having done the work. Of knowing that there was something permanent, at least for a day, about what we did. Knowing that even if all we did was compile box scores or edit wire copy on the day’s stock-market activity, we did good.
That really cute girl and I have been married almost thirty years now. Our son learned to read by looking at the big sports headlines on the back page of the New York Daily News. But he never reads a newspaper now. He gets all of his news from Fark.com. He sees no need to get information to hold in his hands. But then, he takes information for granted. He thinks it’s all just words. Ephemeral words. Words with no context.
I think it’s his loss. I hope it doesn’t become everyone’s. I still believe we need words that you can hold in your hand. Words that have weight.