OFF THE GRID

Oh, for God’s Sake, Newspapers Should Go out of Business

May 11, 09 | 7:52 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Newspapers stopped working a long time ago and a better means of doing their job is readily available. It’s an asinine debate. Who wouldn’t want their news delivered in a form that was searchable, saveable, resendable, which you can talk back to, which is linked to other relevant news, which allows you to read as lightly or as deeply as you wanted to, and which combines text, pictures, and video?

But it’s a debate vigorously being pursued by newspaper people who want to keep their jobs and, in Congress, by John Kerry. (If you’re a politician it’s hard to imagine a world without your mug on the front page.)

This debate is not cast as an issue of technology but of civic responsibility. But the idea that newspapers exist now as watchdogs talking truth to power is roll-on-the-floor funny.

Take away the top three or four papers in the country (the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and, occasionally, the LA Times), and what you’ve got left is a collection of mostly chain-owed papers that have systematically cut back on all aspects of coverage and pay their reporters like bank tellers. They don’t do international or national, and barely do local. The Chicago Tribune still has almost 500 people in its newsroom—and for what?

Who will do investigative journalism, is the plaintive cry, as if that’s what papers are dying to do. My friend Randall Rothenberg, who runs the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and who was a long-time reporter at the New York Times, points out that for all the praise the beleaguered Boston Globe got for its investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, the better question is where was the Globe for the 40 years this abuse was going on.

Certainly, newspapers don’t work for advertisers anymore. The box stores that have replaced local retailers, which once supported the urban dailies, have marketing strategies that are more sophisticated than newspaper ads. The classifieds—real estate, automotive, help wanted—have gone online.

Defending newspapers is just a nostalgic act. But what about journalism, the kind that’s produced, in Frank Rich’s self-congratulatory description, by “brave and knowledgeable correspondents?” Rich wants people to pay for that sort of newsreel-sounding journalism. So does Rupert Murdoch, who just announced a micro-payment system at the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s immaterial,” says Rich about whether that journalism is “on paper, a laptop screen, a Blackberry, a Kindle or podcast.”

But that’s nostalgic, too. Of course it’s material. The form and the means of delivery always change the content, for better or worse.

We’re in the middle of one of the greatest transitions in the history of news. There will neither be newspaper nor, for that matter, the television evening news.

There will neither be Frank Rich nor Rupert Murdoch nor cheap, crabbed, slow-to-respond, protect-their-own-ass, news organizations.

It’s good.

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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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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