It’s The Stupidity, Stupid: The Real Reason Newspapers Are Failing

My early childhood was prodigious, in two humdrum ways.  First, I began to read when I was about 18 months old.  As a toddler I could be found every morning, as if in an embarrassingly cute Hallmark card, perusing a morning newspaper that was three times my size.

Second, I ate like a toddler-sized trencherman, starting the day with about a pound of cereal poured into a good-sized mixing bowl.  Happily, these two hobbies came together every morning, when I read the Newark Star-Ledger while blankly shoveling mountains of Froot Loops into my craw.

Although I’ve since sworn off Froot Loops, along with most everything else that tastes good, I continue to subscribe to the Ledger.  And, during the first Clinton election campaign, when I discovered the partisan pleasure of a morning’s dose of good-news-for-the-home-team, I added The Times as well.   At Stupid O’Clock A.M., newspapers wrapped in plastic baggies are thrown on our lawn from the windows of dark, slow-moving sedans like a middle-class version of a drive-by shooting.  On weekends, Barbara and I savor the news together, joking and interrupting and you-must-read-this’ing for hours.

Last week, the Star Ledger announced that it will be laying off dozens of its  editorial staff; the latest victims of hard times for the newspaper business.  On our “hyperlocal blog,” the anonymous wags with clever screen names circled like turkey vultures: “I have bad news for you – old school Journalism is dead. Of course, you already know that,” snarked one know-it-all.  We don’t need local newspapers, another bloviated:  “For local news, hyper-local blogs will suffice.  Couple that with a few enterprising blogger/journalists (many former newsroom folk) and you’ll have your local covered. For national news, the NYTimes model– some delivery along with a digital subscription– will be the norm.”  In no time at all, the polemic on this issue devolved to schoolyard name-calling between haters of “libs” and haters of “tea-baggers.”  Eee-yawn, as usual.

Lord knows, we have heard the arguments against newspapers for years now.  The lead argument seems to be that there is no purpose to newspapers when the latest news is all around us, seemingly instantaneously.  As for commentary, insight, and opinion (what I call “features”), there are hundreds of bloggers and digital magazines that provide such things…not to mention John Stewart and The Daily Show.  All that is required to be informed and enlightened, say the wags, is to surf the Internet and watch Comedy Central.

Perhaps the most brilliant and concise refutation of this dumbed-down argument was made by Times media writer David Carr, in the documentary “Page One.”  Carr was on a “new media” panel with Michael Wolff, the founder of, which is a Web site and mobile app that aggregates the day’s headlines into a one-page photo grid.  “Nice-looking Web site,” Carr begins drily, holding up a poster-sized print of the Newser grid.  “But here’s what it would look without newspaper journalists,” he continues, holding up a lace-doily version of the grid with every square cut out.

The point, of course, is that those headlines and features don’t exist unless it is worthwhile for someone to create them.  Our aforementioned hyperlocal blog gets most of its content from the town newspaper, from the Ledger, and from second-hand national news.  Those local newspapers in turn buy much of their content from wire and syndication services.  The Daily Show doesn’t gather the news:  It replays, excerpts, and comments on news from traditional news sources.  Believing that journalism will continue to exist if newspapers die is like believing that great movies will continue to be made without movie studios.


Here is where I feel like Samuel Johnson.  Famously, when discussing Bishop Berkeley’s theory that there is no physical reality, but only a world of ideas, he kicked a large stone and said, “I refute Berkeley THUS!”  Let me kick a pile of newsprint, and point out as follows.

First, the critics of newspapers say that we can get all of the “news” reporting we need from the Internet, instantly, so we don’t need newspapers.  The first response to this, of course, is that the news on the Internet comes from mainstream news sources.  Today’s Daily Beast Cheat Sheet  (itself a digital outgrowth of Newsweek Magazine) consists of barely-literate summaries of stories from the Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Al Jazeera.

The second response is that even these headline aggregation sites can be useless.  The Cheat Sheet, though one of the more high-toned sites, prefaces its news squibs with cutesy (and often ungrammatical) tag lines like today’s “No Bay Area, you’re not dreaming” and “Spoken like a true prince? Harry, Prince of Wales, admitted today that...”  These squibs are then followed by hundreds of user comments.  Rather than hunt for examples, I decided to take the very first comment on the first of Cheat Sheet’s stories, the presidential inauguration:

I was struck by how much Sasha, as she matures, is looking more and more like Van Jones.
Sleep with Van Jones already, we do not need to hear more about your fetish.
Van Jones is hot, no doubt about t.
I’d hit that hard.
Allrighty then.  Second, critics of newspapers argue that we can get all of the analysis, opinion, and commentary we need by reading blogs.  OK; there are now millions of blogs, so the first problem is that this source of commentary necessarily involves considerable hunting, pecking, and spitting out.  But, I follow a bunch of favored blogs, so let’s have a look.  One is devoted today to the blogger’s feelings about the “Inaugoration.”  Skip.  Another features a repeating loop of Michelle Obama glancing dismissively at John Boehner.  Huh?  A third fills us in on this question that was asked by a “maybe-British person” on Fox News: “Downton Abbey poses a threat to the left, does it not, Brian? The left says we got to hate these people, but popular America watches a show that says ‘These people are okay!’”  All of these are of course followed by hundreds of reader comments, such as this regarding Michelle Obama: “She is living proof that you simply cannot polish a turd.”  I am not making this up.  This is what passes for commentary on sites like Gawker and The New York Observer
Watch Michelle Obama Throw World-Historical Shade at John Boehner
PLEASE, for the love of all that is holy; leave me in peace with my newspapers.  I don’t want to rely on a top-ten list of headlines at a news-aggregator site.  I don’t want to pore through dozens of blogs and tweets and viral Facebook posts to get smart opinions and commentary. Here’s what I saw in the Times this Sunday:  A fabulous profile of the elegant fellow who runs the Strand Bookstore’s fiction section.  A great long-form feature on the building of Grand Central Station.  A publishing CEO commenting on why “Obama Is A Lousy Manager.”  And, a sweet story of an ugly duckling from Palos Verdes who became a fashion icon. 
So, here’s the thing.  The Internet, at least the part of the Internet that is created by unpaid bloggers and commentators, is a hotbed of stupidity and anonymous snarkiness.  One thousand blogging monkeys at one thousand simian computer keyboards will never consistently create, curate, edit, fact-check, and present the sort of you-gotta-read-this brilliance that is created every day of the week by paid journalists at newspapers and magazines.  So, enough already of this “Journalism is dead” nonsense.  If we keep up at this pace, we will be exactly the opposite of Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last”:  We’ll be able to read everything there is to read, but we won’t want to read any of it.

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January 21, 2013 · 5:14 pm

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