This spring marks the tenth anniversary of a journalistic scandal that everyone would like to forget, and that many have. On May 11, 2003, an unsuspecting Sunday Times readership woke up to a page-one headline heralding a four-page investigation of one Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old reporter whose serial fabrications and plagiarism constituted what the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., called “a low point” in the history of America’s greatest newspaper. Even at the time, Blair, a third-tier neophyte in a post-9/11 newsroom, was a bit player in the conflagration engulfing the Times. But his misdeeds exposed a larger breakdown: The same management culture that let Blair run amok on mostly minor assignments also allowed, even encouraged, Judith Miller (among others) to hijack the Times’s credibility and sometimes its front page to bolster the Bush administration’s spurious evidence for Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The failure of the Times—and of virtually every mainstream news organization, including every broadcast-network news division—to vet the case for the Iraq War remains one of the worst systemic failures in the history of American journalism. The Times, above all, was expected to outperform the pack.
In the paper’s besieged and airless old 43rd Street building during the Blair imbroglio, the mood was grim. As one editor, a Times lifer and loyalist, put it to me in a desultory conversation one afternoon, “You can work for a century to build up an institution like this, and it can still be torn down in a weekend.”
A remarkable thing happened on the Times’ way to demolition, however. A clean slate of leaders, uncharacteristically humble circumspection, hard work, and a new regimen of checks and balances restored the paper’s internal equilibrium and external reputation. That’s not to say the Times is perfect; no news organization has been or ever will be. (To keep some perspective here, it’s worth remembering that another of the Times’ low points was its minimalist coverage of the Holocaust.) But the paper has reclaimed its status as the most essential American news source—one of the last still fielding ambitious correspondents in most places where news is made, and still investing untold man-hours, serious investigative talent, and acres of paragraphs to enterprise reportage that spans the globe and nearly every field of human endeavor. If the Times didn’t provide a daily crib sheet, American television news wouldn’t know how to fill its airtime, and politicians wouldn’t know what authority to cite or, on the right, to tar and feather.
But no sooner did the paper solidify its comeback from the Blair-Miller debacle than history played a funny trick on it—in the sense of gallows humor. There was another existential threat to the paper that had nothing to do with the seemingly apocalyptic events of 2003. The Times, it turned out, was not immune to the same one-two punch that hammered every other old-media organization over the past decade: the digital revolution and the Great Recession.
Now 2003 looks like the good old days for journalism. While Craigslist and the rest of the web had been decimating advertising and disrupting stately journalistic conventions since the mid-nineties, only 16 percent of the country had broadband Internet access. (That was up to 65 percent by December 2012.) And the twin blows of social media were still to come: Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). The damage that’s been inflicted on the Times’ bottom line ever since is a running soap opera. The last time I saw the editor who’d commiserated with me about the Blair turmoil, it was at yet another farewell to Times hands who were either being laid off or taking a buyout. The cash bar was not enough to dispel the high level of anxiety in the room.
You cannot work at any old-media organization, print or television, without having many friends and former colleagues who are seeking work, often outside the news business. And the prospects are hardly getting better. The past two months have been a tipping point for journalistic wakes. The hometown daily that first kindled my love of newsprint, the now emaciated Washington Post, having already surrendered talent, clout, and readers to Politico and sold off Newsweek for a dollar, is now exploring the sale of its building, site of the iconic Watergate newsroom immortalized in the film version of All the President’s Men. (Old newspaper headquarters, like old post offices, are now often most valuable as tear-downs for real-estate developers.) The first paper I ever revered, Variety, a scrappy mix of muckraking and slang in its long-ago prime, died in all but name last month. (It is entombed as a glossy weekly magazine.) The first paper I ever worked for, the Detroit News, suffered the indignities of most metropolitan dailies and some time back reduced home delivery to three days a week. The paper I worked at after that, the Richmond Mercury, is long gone, and so, as of last month, is the Boston Phoenix, the archetypal alternative weekly that we tried to replicate in Virginia. Then there is Time, where I spent three happy years in the late seventies, in its last fat era before Henry Luce’s magazine empire was swallowed up by Time Warner. It and the other Time Inc. titles are being “spun off” by the parent company after a projected sale of the more lucrative magazines in the stable—Time didn’t even make that cut—fell through.