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Inky Tears

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Today, complaints about the state of publications in their surviving print incarnations are borderline irrelevant. They’re all placeholders. Survival, not survival of a print edition, is what’s at stake now. (At long last, the day is coming when Times readers can finally retire their timeless gripe about the newsprint coming off on their hands.) There’s no likelihood that advertising, digital advertising included, will ever again subsidize any old-media news organizations in the style to which they (and their audiences) had been accustomed. Nor can a white knight—that would be Michael Bloomberg—annex one and all, from the Times to The Economist, to his media empire. The holy grail of a new business model, awaited as long as Godot, has not shown up yet, and may never. In the meantime, as old media scramble to adjust to the new order, there will continue to be casualties of employees and of entire publications.

What is less talked about in this difficult transition—since no one wants to offend the customers—are the adjustments that news consumers have to make if their favorite titles are to survive. Now that the “information wants to be free” hippie stage of the Internet is long over, the audience will have to pay for more of the media it wants—whatever form it comes in. It’s not an implausible idea. Free television was for decades considered an American birthright, and the notion of “pay TV” a laughable absurdity. Then came cable. Most Americans now pay for 24/7 American and foreign news networks, whether they realize it or not, in their cable and satellite packages. While digital subscriptions to the Times, the Journal, and the rest do not remotely generate the revenue needed to support their operations, it’s still too young a business to dismiss as hopeless.

An equally important adjustment—­especially for the resistant demographic sentimentally attached to paper and hostile to most other iterations of print content—is cultural, not financial. News consumers will have to start welcoming change in their most revered mass media instead of bitching about it. They will have to accept the reality that the future of news will look different whether they like it or not, and that different doesn’t necessarily mean worse and might well mean better.

An essential step to welcoming change is to stop romanticizing what came before. That includes fantasies about the “golden age” of twentieth-century television. Superficial as the network evening newscasts may be now, they are no more so than the halcyon fifteen-minute evening newscasts presided over by Chet Huntley and David ­Brinkley. As for the sainted Edward R. Murrow, he would have been right at home on 60 Minutes. He didn’t just take on Joe ­McCarthy and the plight of migrant workers but conducted celebrity interviews in which he lobbed softballs at Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and Liberace.

The sentimentality about the magazine and newspaper titles of twentieth-century print is equally misplaced, and generally makes about as much sense as preferring Currier & Ives prints to photography. If you look back at Time in its heyday, it’s a model more worthy of parody than emulation. Many gifted people passed through—some of whom, like Calvin Trillin and Maureen Dowd, have been writing wry pre-obituaries for the old joint in recent weeks. Back in what Luce dubbed the American Century, Time Inc. fielded lavishly supported bureaus everywhere, on a scale unknown to any American news organization today. But the talents of the Time staff were funneled through a system of “group journalism” in which the writers in New York rewrote the eyewitness reporting submitted by the actual reporters in the field, and then the editors rewrote the writers, sometimes to inject a political bias that suited Luce and his successors at the apex of the pyramid, most egregiously during the Vietnam War. The profligate waste of money along the way was a comic spectacle worthy of Evelyn Waugh. Every Time alumnus has his own tale, mine being an utterly delightful trip to Las Vegas to report an innocuous one-­paragraph celebrity item (which never ran) for the “People” section.

Unlike Time, which was originally conceived as a weekly news digest, the Times always did prize depth and objectivity. Adolph Ochs, who bought the paper in 1896, meant the emphasis in his new slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” to be on all. The Times I grew up on as a teenager in the sixties was closer to that goal than any other publication, but if you look at that old two-section paper today, it is primitive compared with the modern Times, whether the plush one of fifteen years ago or the thinner one of 2013. It covered most hard news but often in dry prose that was indeed gray. Not for nothing did the young Halberstam leave his successful career there in the late sixties to pursue the more adventurous magazine journalism then being advanced in Harper’s, Esquire, and New York (which began its life as the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald-Tribune).

Halberstam’s Times colleague Gay Talese had left to do the same. His first best-selling book was a history of the paper titled The Kingdom and the Power, published in 1969. If the journalistic elites described by Halberstam in The Powers That Be seem at least a hundred years in the past, the quaint rituals and layers of bureaucracy at the Times chronicled by Talese seem as remote as ancient Rome, or perhaps the ­present-day Vatican. As he wrote, the paper was a “medieval modern kingdom within the nation with its own private laws and values.” Those values almost always mirrored those of the Establishment, especially Washington’s. It was still the best paper in the country by far, but even then television was starting to snatch advertisers and readers. In the mid-seventies—not long after television in essence ended the mission and weekly publication of Luce’s once mighty, photography-driven Life magazine—the Times fought back by doubling the size of its weekday edition, adding such outlandish innovations as new sections devoted to food, science, and weekend amusements. All of them, of course, were widely derided by purists then, much as readers would protest the paper’s belated adoption of color photography in 1997.


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