Print­ers’ ink blues (save the tears)

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

The news about Amer­i­can news­pa­pers is only semi-bad, but you’d never know it from all the weep­ing, wail­ing and gnash­ing of teeth on Wall Street.

The at­tempted kid­nap­ping last week of the Wall Street Jour­nal, which Ru­pert Mur­doch cov­ets to make a com­pli­ant cog in his me­dia ma­chine, has fo­cused at­ten­tion on news­pa­pers and why they’re such tar­gets for the barons of fi­nance. Nearly ev­ery­one is root­ing for the own­ing Ban­croft fam­ily of Bos­ton to keep the Jour­nal and its rep­u­ta­tion safe from Lord Cop­per, but the stakes are so enor­mous that no­body is bet­ting against the king of the tabloids.

The big news­pa­pers still make a lot of money. But “a lot” is not enough for the masters of the uni­verse, who can’t un­der­stand why any­one would con­sider a news­pa­per cru­cial to a com­mu­nity’s self­es­teem. “Pub­lic trust” might as well be the name of a small ripe bank in Dubuque. A re­turn of 15 per­cent on in­vest­ment is be­yond the wildest dreams of avarice for many in­vestors, but it’s chump change for a chief ac­coun­tant who could squeeze out an­other per­cent­age point if he re­ally tried.

The cir­cu­la­tion of some big-city news- pa­pers is down, down, down again as read­ers con­tinue to grav­i­tate to ra­dio, television, the In­ter­net and bliss­ful ig­no­rance. The Dal­las Morn­ing News is down 14 per­cent. Sim­i­lar de­clines were posted by other news­pa­pers in the most re­cent cir­cu­la­tion au­dits, in­clud­ing the Mem­phis Com­mer­cial Ap­peal and the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle.

For those of us old enough to re­mem­ber the golden age of jour­nal­ism, such sad tales of hard times reek of pure fan­tasy. How could it be true that in­tel­li­gent read­ers are turn­ing their backs on read­ing? How can a man be well-in­formed if he doesn’t read? (Who needs to be in­formed?) It was never thus only yes­ter­day.

The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal, for ex­am­ple, is the stuff of leg­end. Dur­ing the Civil War, as the Yan­kees closed in on Mem­phis, the ed­i­tor took a few sticks of lead type and his hand press, com­man­deered a rail­road car on a pass­ing train headed south and for the next few months the news­pa­per was pub­lished in a half-dozen states. The Yan­kees ran it to ground in Alabama three years later. When I was a re­porter on “the Old Re­li­able” in an ear­lier cen­tury, the news­pa­per was held in such high re­pute that once, when the bailiff of a Mis­sis­sippi court couldn’t find a Bi­ble to swear in a wit­ness the judge sent him down to the de­pot for a copy of the Com­mer­cial Ap­peal. “Make sure it’s a fresh copy, with no fin­ger­prints on it,” His Honor told him. Try that with a lap­top.

News­pa­pers were once held as a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the town, usu­ally by fam­i­lies con­tent to live in the big­gest house on Easy Street, to dine well with no envy of the kind of riches to beg­gar a caliph. The typ­i­cal copy ed­i­tor, try­ing to make enough sense of a news story to put a head­line on it, could tell you who owned the news­pa­per in nearly ev­ery town and city in Amer­ica: the Bing­hams in Louisville, the McCormicks in Chicago, the Chan­dlers in Los An­ge­les, the Sulzberg­ers in New York, the Heiskells in Lit­tle Rock, the Carters in Fort Worth, the Evanses in Nashville, the Gra­hams in Wash­ing­ton. The fam­i­lies ran their news­pa­pers care­fully, and they were im­por­tant be­cause they were deeply rooted in their com­mu­ni­ties. Now most of the bigc­ity news­pa­pers are owned by the chains, who re­gard them merely as sweet plums ready for pluck­ing. Edi­tors are trans­ferred so fre­quently they rarely re­mem­ber where to pick up their shirts. The pa­per in San An­to­nio looks like the pa­per in Nashville which looks like the pa­per in Rochester which looks like the pa­per in Or­lando.

Be­sides that, it’s all free on the In­ter­net, so why buy it? “News has be­come ubiq­ui­tous, free and as a re­sult, a com­mod­ity,” says Wal­ter Huss­man, the owner and pub­lisher of the Arkansas Demo­crat Gazette in Lit­tle Rock, a di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­ated Press. “Not many years ago if some­one wanted to find out about what was in the news­pa­per they had to buy one.” Now it’s free. Any bor­dello madam would tell you that you can’t sell it if you give it away. Pogo the comic-strip pos­sum said it more po­litely: “We have met the en­emy, and he is us.”

Wesley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief of The Times.

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