The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded yesterday
and the journalism crowd was happily reminded of its own significance.
“The Pulitzer,” says the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher in Saul Bellow’s (Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, Humboldt’s Gift
, in a more piquant reminder of our profession’s historic stature, “is for the birds. For the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates.”
Journalism used to be a humble, relatively crap-ass profession in awe of novelists and real men of letters. Journalists—once known as reporters—were second-tier types, who dreamt, nearly always futilely, of graduating to the higher plane.
Then novelists and men of letters got put out of business or retreated to universities and non-fiction became the coin of the literary realm. What’s more, Watergate came along and suddenly the news business was filled with Ivy Leaguers and an elevated sense of its own mission.
Thereupon began a quarter-century of self-importance and earnestness, which has not ended even in the face of the profession becoming among the most unpopular in the nation and with many (if not most) of its outlets facing obsolesce and bankruptcy.
The industry response has been to circle the wagons in an effort to save itself from changing consumer demands. Even Rupert Murdoch, a man who has been throughout his career almost singularly focused on what his readers wanted (not least of all cheap news), now does almost daily duty disparaging the desires of those same readers and vilifying the enterprises that are trying to satisfy them.
So where should the emphasis be? On what journalists think is good for journalism and for their business, or on what the customer wants?
This is complicated because journalists, perhaps naturally—if against all the evidence—seem to believe they know what the customer wants. It is further complicated because journalists have come to believe that their labor does not just have a commercial reason for being, but a historic, even spiritual, mission as well. Even Murdoch seems suddenly to think his is a religious calling.
The music business went through a similar metamorphosis. A business which was built on bravura commercialism, on pandering to whatever whim of its customers it could dream of, suddenly turned against its customers’ clear inclinations and desires. The music industry sought to protect itself, quite unsuccessfully, from those inclinations and desires by calling their lawyers.
One result of the music industry’s efforts to protect itself was that it let Steve Jobs do it for them—effectively passing control of the industry to him (at least the much-shrunken paying part of the industry). The journalism industry seems now headed to a similar fate and, as well, into Steve Jobs’ hands.
The news business heads also to a public-private model of not-for-profit foundation and grant-supported newsrooms—promising a significant leap in earnestness (ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, won a Pulitzer, yesterday). In this, journalism will end up as novelists and men of letters have, supported but unread.
So is there yet a viable commercial option—a way to make journalism seem necessary? Perhaps. But it’s an effort that struggles against the bishops and sourpusses of the business.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.