Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Believe it or not, I didn't always want to be the internet equivalent of a man on a street corner delivering a series of dissertations to a trash can. Back in high school, I dreamed of being a hard-nosed, hard-drinking, workaholic newspaper reporter. I would travel around the world with a sharp eye and the cynical heart of an idealist who has seen too much. My widely-read articles would not only reveal the truth about the world, they would wow the public and the critics alike with inventive prose not seen since the days of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, my idols. Like a lot of would-be journalists, I was inspired by the stories of the golden age of journalism, the 1970s--Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman breaking the Watergate story, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone in their heydays, “new” journalists like Wolfe and Thompson and Gay Talese reporting from the front lines of the counterculture, etc, etc, etc.
Well, it turns out that my high school self was about as dumb as a cardboard suitcase. Wanting to be a twenty-first century newspaperman is like wanting to be a twentieth-century farrier. No matter how passionate you are about shoeing horses, the fact remains that hardly any horses are going to require shoeing. And it's increasingly obvious that newspapers are going to become as useless as horseshoes in the near future. And you know what? Good riddance. Horses are smelly and shit all over the place, and newspapers are basically useless.
The one thing a publication—online or dead tree or billboard—needs is an audience, and for a long time newspapers had their audience by their collective balls. If you lived in Boston, you had to read the Globe or the Herald if you wanted news. If you lived in Seattle, it was the Times or the Post-Intelligencer, and so on. And “news” meant not only local news but also national and international news, arts and entertainment, sports, classified ads...the list goes on.
But today audiences aren't restricted by their geography. If I want international news and live in Boston, I can go to Reuters or the Associated Press, or I can just muck around on Google News. And if I want movie reviews I can pick and choose from a dozen different movie-buff sites or see a whole lot of reviews at once on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes.
And classified ads, which at one point made up a major part of newspaper revenues, are now practically the exclusive domain of sites like craigslist, which is killing newspapers. If I don't already have the habit of subscribing to and reading ink printed on dead trees, what possible reason would I have for starting right now?
So newspapers are outdated. But that doesn't mean they suck. No, newspapers suck is because other than local news, they all say exactly the same thing. Most national and international news articles are pulled from wire services—which can be read by anyone now, thanks to the internet—and even when they are written by a paper's own reporters, they're almost exactly alike (compare the first two paragraphs of the New York Time's and Washington Post's articles about the Federal Reserve).
Even worse are the opinion pages. Different papers have different columnists who presumably think differently about the issues of the day, but you wouldn't know it from the coverage of, for example, the recent brouhaha over racial profiling involving Harvard professor Henry Gates. Columnists around the country considered the many sides of this complex issue and informed everyone that there are many sides to this issue, and that it's complex.
Syndicated columnist Bill Maxwell said, “Perhaps the [Cambridge Police] department did act stupidly, but Gates and Obama also acted stupidly.” Fine and dandy—and fair and balanced. But also pretty much what The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne said: “Sgt. Crowley should not have arrested Gates, as the police implicitly acknowledged by dropping the charges. But Gates knows that this police officer with a good record is not the enemy. Let's end the score-settling right now.”
But I can't come down too hard on those guys, since each is only one man. It took two people working at the Dallas Morning News to come up with this nugget of wisdom: “Everyone shares some blame, from Gates to Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley to, sadly, President Obama.”
Apparently, everyone is a little to blame over this conflict between a black man and a white police officer. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey expands on this point by saying not only is the police officer to blame, the black man is also to blame: “A rueful Mr. Obama hoped that this episode would become “a teachable moment.” It can, if everyone -- especially a professor -- is willing to learn.”
This would be acceptable back in the day when everyone only had access to their local columnist, but we're online now guys. Say what you will about blogs, but at least successful blogs know that you can't just repeat what everyone else is saying—if you do, people will read something else. If you want proof of this, look at the columns linked to above and check out Slate.com's take on the incident, which is actually worth reading.
Newspapers probably won't die off completely any time soon—there are still farriers, after all, and papers can still be useful by reporting local news. But the days of the two-newspaper town are over (why do we need two equally redundant papers in a city again?), and big, clumsy papers like the The New York Times are going to fade away. So long, suckers. Maybe you can all print the same column about how sad it is the newspaper is dying on your way out.