You heard it here first—the theme of next year's Chicago Humanities Festival will be laughter. When Lawrence Weschler mentioned his intentions my first thought was, Is there really that much to say? Enough to drive something like 140 different programs? But there's humor in everything, and when a panel of eminent scholars discusses gallows humor, I'll be there. Even the gloomy talk on the future of the news business that Weschler and I had just heard could have been played for laughs.
Veteran journalist and author John Darnton spoke at a festival event Sunday to a big crowd in the sanctuary of the Loop's Chicago Temple—a good place for a eulogy. Darnton had some nice words for the deceased—that's America's newspapers, whether they know it or not—and a bleak assessment of the survivors taking over the business.
Darnton began his 40 years at the New York Times as an editorial assistant before going on to important editing billets inside the paper and major reporting assignments in Europe and Africa. In short, he's old school. He noted that newspapers began as political organs, but when they discovered that advertising was enough to keep them afloat, they took on ethics and affected independence—"without fear or favor," as the Times first asserted in 1896. Peddling truth and objectivity, Darnton explained, "was a better business model." And the 20th century was newspapers' golden age.
But the model involved clearing thousands of acres of timber in Canada, turning it to pulp and paper, and bringing it south by rail to be covered with ink and trucked to vendors and distributors. As Darnton explained, doing all that no longer makes economic sense—not when the ink and timber can be spared and the news delivered instantaneously by electrons. So think of this as a fleeting time of "journalistic riches," he told his audience, and enjoy it while you can. The blessings of both old-fashioned newspapers and online news are ours for the moment, but that won't last.
Darnton's ability to think along these lines and play it for laughs is demonstrated in the newest of his five novels, Black & White and Dead All Over. At a paper in New York that sounds very much like the Times, the talented, obsessed, somewhat nutty people who staff it snicker at the desperate steps their pandering bosses take to keep a sinking ship afloat. Then the vexing question of mortality becomes literal: members of the staff begin to die—murdered in the most ingenious ways by one of their own. Darnton begins his book with a quote from Evelyn Waugh's Scoop: "He had once seen... a barely intelligible film about newspaper life in New York where neurotic men in shirt sleeves and eye-shades had rushed from telephone to tape machine, insulting and betraying one another in surroundings of unredeemed squalor." But Darnton is too affectionate and mournful about the newspaper game to write such an acid satire. Black & White is valedictory humor.
In his talk Darnton didn't blame anyone, really, for the collapse of newspapers. He just said the ride's over. The papers are losing billions of dollars in ad revenues that won't come back. The Internet has no need for the last two of the traditional three P's that compose newspaper overhead—people, paper, production—so ad rates there are bound to be lower. Darnton called the newspapers' own free Web sites "self-inflicted cannibalism." He said in the "promised land" they aspire to, decreasing print ad revenues and rising online ad revenues will reach an equilibrium that will allow them to go forward.
But to Darnton, it's a promised land without a port. A handful of national sites—the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today—are gaining traffic and advertisers, he said, but the others aren't; why should someone in Chicago, let alone Topeka, visit a local site for national news when the Times and Post sites are just as handy? But not even those few are closing in on the milk and honey. Their sites trail the major aggregators—AOL, Yahoo—who originate little if any news and rely heavily on the Associated Press.
But then, the AP has its own problems. Papers that subscribe to it have begun dropping out to save money—the Tribune Company, which owns nine dailies, just gave the AP the required two years' notice.
Darnton has an eye for death spirals.
"How will all this affect news itself?" he asked, and moved on to material that if no less depressing was, at least, a little more arguable. In place of the traditional labor-intensive news story, which he fears is obsolete, he said the Internet has given us a "new narrative structure." It's the blog—personal, sequential, additive, "almost always subjective," and when readers are allowed to comment, communal. What we gain from Internet journalism, in his view, is citizen participation. What we lose are traditional standards of reliability and accountability and the serendipitous benefits of reading, just because they're there, newspaper stories on subjects we'd never have guessed would interest us.
On this point, Darnton can be accused of sentimentality. Any Web user knows how far afield it's possible to wander from the reason you went online in the first place. But the Internet he described is more limiting than liberating. The sense of community that he, perhaps romantically, likes to think emanates from knowing that the same newspaper story you're reading is being read by multitudes has succumbed to a tribally organized Internet split into "rival camps." And sure enough, who hasn't stumbled onto the wrong site and wondered Who are these people?
The additive Internet is capable of some impressive journalism. Darnton cited the 2004 tsunami, a catastrophe whose eyewitnesses provided an overwhelming accretion of specifics. But the 2005 London subway bombing was another matter. The central question was What happened? and Darnton said the Internet went around in circles about that until old-school reporters established that terrorists had blown up three underground trains.
Internet-generated journalism, he asserted, holds itself to lesser standards. It sees itself as too transient and insubstantial to worry about precision—in the end the collective process will sort things out. Don't count on it, said Darnton. Internet journalism is good at aggregation, linkage, documentation, and verification—for instance, it can swiftly demystify an unknown like Sarah Palin. But when the truth is buried, he said, the blogosphere doesn't dig. Darnton wouldn't want to count on well-intended amateurs to expose something like "extraordinary rendition"—the White House's secret program to ship suspected terrorists to countries with no compunctions against torturing them.
Darnton said big metro newspapers are in the greatest peril—their advertisers are jumping ship much more quickly than those in towns and small cities. He thinks papers like the Tribune and Sun-Times could disappear entirely—from both news racks and the Internet—leaving the public with a hodgepodge of Web sites to turn to for local news. He said the Internet would have to invent a new form of journalism to fill the void and he didn't sound confident. Even Internet reporters with the highest of intentions face the still unsolved problem of funding.
When newspaper companies auger in—to borrow Tom Wolfe's phrase for a fighter jet spiraling to the ground and blowing up—by lowering their standards to save money, losing even more money as a result, and eventually collapsing, it will be up to others to originate as well as package news. Darnton worries that a "generation of illiterate news consumers" will be created, consumers who don't know how poorly they're being informed because they've forgotten (or never knew) what good journalism was. They'll be beguiled by second-rate journalism's ability to pass as something better. Reporters will go on quoting sources, and how will readers know if these were good sources, which can be damn hard to cultivate, or just a few marginal figures impressed with the sound of their own voices?
And another thing. To save money, newspapers are unloading their old gray heads, their institutional memories. In Black & White and Dead All Over the first victim is someone like that, a senior editor who goes out in sensational fashion—he's found dead in the newsroom with an editor's spike in his chest.
More often, they're just told to take early retirement.v
Care to comment? This newspaper's online at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.