Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Inky Tears


My other two previous employers, the New York Post and the Times, are hanging in. Few believe that once Rupert Murdoch is gone, his heirs will share the sentimental attachment to print that lets him stomach the Post’s red ink. As for the Times, there’s hardly anyone among its large and loyal readership who isn’t rooting for its survival. But wishing won’t make it so. The Times has a new CEO, bustling moneymaking schemes, and, soon, a retooled website, but anyone who says he knows how the story will turn out, whether there or at The Wall Street Journal or at NBC News or at this or any other print magazine, is kidding himself.

Over the past decade, these brands and their brethren have endured repeated rounds of downsizing, accompanied by a never-ending profusion of symposia and jeremiads about the Death of Old Media, with triumphalist new-media gurus all too delightedly dancing on old media’s proliferating graves. It’s hard to be upbeat no matter where you work and no matter how smart your organization’s iPad app, website, and social-media apparatus—or, for that matter, the quality of its actual content. But let’s try. This may be precisely the moment to say that a lot of the mourning is beside the point. The decline and fall of old media was inevitable and unavoidable. The old media were not always what they were cracked up to be. And the end of civilization as we know it is not in the cards.

Virtually no one in the news business was prescient enough to imagine just how radical the impact of the Internet would be. But neither were those in most other media businesses that have been upended, starting with the recording industry, the canary in the digital pipeline, which somehow thought it could halt a cultural revolution by fighting Napster in court. In the modern history of media, the reigning giants have nearly always been caught napping by transformative change. When sound arrived to movies in the late twenties, the silent-film industry and the then-supersize Broadway-theater industry were both blindsided: The moment is captured hilariously in the comic movie Singin’ in the Rain, where Hollywood partygoers take in a brief talking-picture demonstration and assume it’s a gag executed by an actor hiding behind the screen. When television started to gain traction in the late forties, few in show business anticipated the huge dislocations that would remake everything from reading habits to urban nightlife to consumer tastes in leisure pursuits. In June 1948, the usually canny editor of Variety, Abel Green, declared on its front page that “the relative upbeat of TV and the relative downbeat of AM broadcasting” was “more theoretical than real.” What prompted his column was the decision of Texaco to expand its long-running radio hit “Texaco Star Theater” to television. Green didn’t anticipate that the show would surpass its radio success, becoming the new medium’s first blockbuster. By November 1949, the front page of Variety was backpedaling: Orders for TV sets were up 400 percent from the year before, many of them sold by the show’s headliner, the comedian Milton Berle, and supply could not keep up with demand. Three years after that, morning newspapers were finally starting to wake up and complain about the direct competition for eyeballs and sponsors from NBC’s upstart Today.

In the case of our contemporary mainstream news media, the myopia (which I certainly shared) might well be exemplified by the former Times reporter David Halberstam, as sharp a journalist as there has been in my time. In 1979, he published The Powers That Be, a largely laudatory history of four organizations then considered to be serious competitors, if not exactly peers, of the Times: CBS, Time Inc., the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Revisiting his book in 2000 to write an introduction for a new paperback edition, Halberstam was in despair about most of them. What troubled him were the corporate values of new owners, the rise of cable news and its embrace of a tabloid sensibility, the fragmentation of the audience, the cutbacks in expensive foreign reporting, and the passing of a generation of print-trained television executives who “had accepted the norms and values of print in defining news.” He wrote glumly that his 1979 book “seems like something that was written a hundred years ago, not merely twenty years ago.” And he made that despairing judgment without even taking into account the early havoc already being wrought on traditional news media by the Internet—which merited only one offhand mention in his introduction.

One can hardly begin to imagine what Halberstam, who died in 2007, would make of the media landscape today. One of his complaints about “the younger people taking over” television news in 2000 was their “if it bleeds, it leads” tilt toward salacious crime coverage. But as a new Pew “State of the News Media” study finds, even crime news is in decline on local television these days, no doubt because it requires more reporters than the staples that now dominate: weather and traffic. Halberstam’s thirteen-year-old introduction now seems as dated as his book. He’d be astounded to learn that 2000 has proved to be the high point for newsroom employment in modern American newspapers—it has dropped 30 percent since. But almost none of Halber­stam’s journalist colleagues saw this coming either. We didn’t recognize that we were up against change as sweeping as the building of the transcontinental railroad or the invention of electricity.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift