Inky Tears

Photo: Victor Prado/New York Magazine

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.

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.

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.

Would that modernization were so simple now. But the Times and its print and television brethren can’t survive in the digital marketplace simply by adding bells and whistles online, or piling on C-span-league talking-head videos, or staging high-ticket conferences in which reporters and columnists mingle with corporate underwriters. (That get-rich-quick fad has already led to an embarrassing blowup at the Washington Post.) The digital revolution by definition has undermined the very notion of omniscient news organizations. We can mine information far more deeply than we ever could before, contrasting, comparing, and testing countless news sources all along the way as we become our own editors, trying to discriminate between the real and the spurious. Given the time most Americans devote to comparison shopping (much of it online) for cars or even toaster ovens, this does not seem like a tremendous burden of citizenship. Those who didn’t “follow the news” in print or on television still won’t, of course. And those readers who only seek news or opinion tailored to their own parochial interests and biases will continue to do so. But new media, no more than old, can’t be expected to remake the human race.

There is plenty of junk online, but the old media had their own antecedents of cat ­videos, rumormongers, and gossip sites. It’s amazing how few remember that in the good old days, there was Confidential as well as Time, the scurrilous and red-baiting Daily Mirror as well as the Times and Journal, rigged game shows like The $64,000 Question sharing prime time with Murrow’s See It Now. For any news junkie who once had to rely on days-late shipments to out-of-town newsstands to read firsthand news from Chicago or Tokyo, it seems like winning the lottery to be able to surf the digital marketplace now. And if the Internet speeds the spread of misinformation, so it can speed its debunking. Had social media been in place, some of the lonely voices, journalistic and official, challenging the fictions leading up to the Iraq War (not just the bogus WMD but also the bogus links between the 9/11 terrorists and Saddam) would have been amplified on the web, rather than buried in the back pages of newsprint and news sites. It’s hungry (and highly competitive) new-media outlets that quickly unraveled the writer Jonah Lehrer’s duplicity and uncovered the football star Manti Te’o’s fictional deceased girlfriend (whose existence was never subjected to routine verification by CBS or NBC Sports, ESPN, or Sports Illustrated, let alone by the Associated Press and many major papers). As Clay Shirky has written, “We don’t select publications anymore, we select links.” We are more and more likely to turn to the advice of trusted friends in deciding “what to read, watch or listen to” rather than rely on impersonal and arguably more fallible media kingdoms whose power can give a megaphone to someone like, say, Judith Miller.

This is why the biggest recent Times success story, the election-year popularity of the poll analyst Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, is such a mixed indicator for the future of old media. According to Alexa, the company that measures such things, Silver and FiveThirtyEight were the only Times writers or brands to land on its list of rising referral search terms in October 2012. As the election reached its fever pitch, half the people coming to the Times site were seeking Silver. But that did not translate into those readers’ checking out the paper’s coverage of Afghanistan or art. As the paper’s executive editor, Jill Abramson, has said, “They weren’t coming for the rest of the Times, they came for him.” Given all the Times has to offer, that’s a sobering fact, for it and for Silver, whose deal with the paper is up this year. “At what point,” asked the digital trade site PaidContent, “does it become more of a hindrance than a benefit to be associated with a traditional media brand?” Is there a point, in other words, when large news organizations, whether a national newspaper like the Times or the Journal, or a network like CNN, become synonymous with corporate sclerosis, as well as unsustainable, in the face of more nimble (and potentially more profitable) competitors? Those competitors include not just specialist boutiques like Talking Points Memo or TMZ or Foreign Policy but also a brand-name blog like Andrew Sullivan’s the Dish, which recently left the Daily Beast–Newsweek megasite to experiment with a subscription model. Even so, the Times could still be the last of its genre standing, the Walmart of full-­service news. Or not. The much-quoted ­William Goldman dictum about the movie business, “Nobody knows anything,” surely applies here.

Though most old-media journalists I encounter these days are even more anxious than is par for the profession, those who have jobs can still find encouragement. It’s a paradox of the Internet that it has found more and new readers for virtually every news source, from old-media publications to the blogger who hit Tumblr yesterday, even as it has killed the business model that once supported them. The thirst and potentially the market for actual news is as robust as ever—whether for bulletins of 140 characters or long-form journalism of the type pioneered by writers like Talese and Halberstam. Despite the tough economic odds, aspiring young newshounds, whatever their chosen medium, are entering the ranks as enthusiastically as ever, and perhaps with a more realistic sense than recent generations that job stability and an upscale income are not guaranteed.

A few weeks ago I ran into a staff writer in his early forties I know at the Washington Post, where layoffs, cuts in coverage, and management turnover have been particularly severe. As is typical in such encounters, we compared notes on the state of the business. “We’re in for a long period of reinvention,” he said, “and almost no one now in journalism will see the end of it. It will take years to figure out how to pay for it. And reinvention is a painful thing to watch. Everything will have to be reduced to rubble and then built back up again.” But, as he added, “there’s no point in being nostalgic. How we used to do things in the seventies, eighties, and nineties—who cares? We have to go with it.” He was not complaining. In truth, we’re at the beginning of a new chapter in the history of news media, not the end of the last, and readers and practitioners alike have little choice but to hang on tight through the sublime and the ridiculous. You can track @RevolutionSyria in real time on Twitter, and also Jayson Blair, who had 207 followers last time I looked.

Inky Tears