OFF THE GRID

Will the World End Without Newspapers?

May 5, 09 | 9:18 AM   byMichael Wolff
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David Carr, who writes about the media for the New York Times, and who I’ve never personally liked very much (we were colleagues at New York magazine, where he would stand too close and bray rhetorical statements and open-ended questions), wrote another in a series of columns yesterday about how important newspapers are—even as his own company is threatening to close the Boston Globe.

It was quite a long and digressive piece with a variety of stray points, but two seemed particularly revealing. We need newspapers because people who haven’t had the benefit of newspaper training—people, for instance, trying to be citizen journalists on the web—might not know how to “make the calls, hit the streets and walk past the conventional wisdom.” (How can people write such stuff with a straight face?) He points out: “I’ve been in business journalism for some years and have constantly bumped hard up against the limits of my land-grant, liberal arts education.” I will attest to this: It’s always been amazing to me how little Carr knows about business. I couldn’t say if it has to do with his schooling or his own intellectual limitations, but the guy is really quite a nitwit—and making the calls doesn’t seem to mask that.

He shouldn’t, however, single out just himself. Almost all business reporters at all newspapers (and, likely, all reporters on all subjects) seem often to be semi-retarded (Carr is by no means the biggest dope on the Times’ business desk; and his colleagues at the Globe barely make the effort to publish a sentient business page). That is sort of the point about the flight from newspapers and the growing belief that, on the Internet, any old Joe can be a journalist—because anybody with a specific knowledge about a subject knows how wrong newspapers get it.


(David Carr, AP Photo)
 
Carr’s other notable point had to do with worrying about Internet journalists and their relationship with the sponsors who might choose to support them—how that might be corrupting.

That’s a timely issue, because Carr’s boss, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, has just written a sort of love poem to Carlos Slim in the issue of Time magazine with its selection of the world’s 100 most influential people (as it happens, precisely the kind of theme magazine designed to attract sponsors). Slim, who lent the Times $250 million, is the Times’ most important backer. In that respect Carr is right—at least with regard to the Times if not necessarily to the Internet—about the dangers of journalism and sponsorship: Sulzberger’s encomium to Slim is god awfully embarrassing. Of course this is Carr’s point: When you need money, you do what you have to do (be it coddling dubious characters or closing money-losing newspapers).

But personally I believe the greater fear is that Sulzberger might believe this stuff about what a courageous entrepreneur Slim is. Which goes back to Carr’s point about coming up against your own limits, and my point about newspaper people so often being cretins. Slim is about as entrepreneurial as the nearest mob boss.

With newspapers on the verge of extinction, we’re having a moment of great nostalgia. The Times especially will try to justify its existence for a little longer with the notion that we owe it our freedom and democracy.

But it really is worth remembering that most newspapers are rubbish and that even the Times itself is quite often pretty dim.

It won’t be hard for the future to be better.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.

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