Laudator Temporis Acti

Your Author, at a slightly younger age, perusing The Times of London

Your Author, at a slightly younger age, perusing The Times of London

Laudator Temporis Acti
(“One Who Praises Bygone Times”)
Horace, Ars Poetica

The Times, they are definitely bygone, or, if not bygone, doggone near bygone. The Seattle Times and the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Los Angeles Times and The Roanoke Times and The St. Petersburg Times and all the other Timeses, Intelligencers, Posts, Standards, Newses, Courants and Gazettes – all are in trouble. Newsroom staffs are laid off (the Baltimore Examiner’s demise was announced three weeks ago), sections are pared (the end of the Washington Post Book World section was announced the same week), and most major surviving metropolitan dailies arrive on the doorstep shrunk down to pitiful shadows of their former selves, with no guarantees at all that the shrinking will stop short of the moment when there’s nothing left and they stop arriving at all.

Foreign bureaus are long gone, ad revenues are sapped by the depletion in the ranks of advertisers (department stores and auto dealers, the most important advertisers, themselves being on the critical list), the classifieds have fled to Craigslist, whole subject-areas are abandoned. Out-of-town news is supplied mainly by other papers in national chains or by wire service. Opening the paper, an experience that once was the commencement of a feast for the hungry mind, has become more like sitting down at a dinner party in a family most of whose members are deceased, leaving nothing but aged and frail survivors behind.

It seems clear that the newsprint broadsheet, produced by an independent staff, devoted to all subjects from international doings to neighborhood events, from culture to sports to business, featuring modest but perennial entertainments like crosswords, advice to the lovelorn, recipes and comic strips, and open to public input in the form of letters to the editor – will survive, if at all, in a few protected strongholds, like redwoods in a state park. For the most part, it will vanish from the scene.

I observed as much over a recent lunch with a family member of mine, a smart and conscientious young man whose attention to current affairs exceeds even my own, and was met with a shrug. “It’s not as if I’m not gonna get my news,” he said. “I log onto the Huffington Post to start each day, to see what Arianna’s got for me, and then I check out some regular news websites.”

Doesn’t he miss having all the different ingredients together in one place?, I ask. Not really. Doesn’t he worry about the decline in journalistic standards, as the credentialing and ethics-setting functions of the papers go untended? He thinks about that – yes, a bit. But he has a faith that marketplaces will always deliver what people want, and if they want solid journalistic standards, they will receive them.

I tell him I’m not so sure. The old system insured that journalists got paid. The new system, blogs and websites from historical news organizations like papers and television networks with banner ads, reportedly cannot match the revenues that used to accrue from paid advertising and paid subscriptions. So who assures commensurate pay for Web journalists?

And that money matters. It’s all very well to talk in a grand abstract way about the marketplace supplying people what they want. But standards cost. Will the motivation really be there to produce well-sourced, properly researched, and intelligently edited reportage? The reality is, you get what you pay for, no matter what you might want. Another reality is, when business models change, good things don’t always just change format; some become unavailable. When I was quite young, for instance, I crossed the ocean three times on liners. I can still cruise, of course, and I can still cross the ocean, but the wonderful leisurely experience of steamship travel as utilitarian transport is gone. Likewise, if I want a Web-based replacement for the system of credentialed and trained reporters the newspapers used to provide, working in newsrooms that pass on the norms of a professional journalistic culture – well, I probably can go whistle for it, for all the good it’s going to do me.

You can argue, of course, that there is a tradeoff – that in exchange for losing the enforcement of standards made possible by the relative centralization of the old papers, we also enfranchise anyone, anyone who desires, to become his or her own paper. This breaks the iron grip of the old law that freedom of the press belongs to anyone who owns a press – with the silent corollary that it belongs to no one who does not own a press. But I’m not saying nothing’s gained. I’m just saying something’s lost.

Another shrug after I make these observations. To a young man who watches his movies and makes his friends on a computer, this all does not seem like a stunning loss.

Besides, I say, newspapers have a constitutional function. The young man, a law student, just looks at me. For once, even I know I’m blowing hot air and sounding like a fogey.

The products of the press whose freedom the Founders guaranteed when they wrote the First Amendment were nothing like the encyclopedic metropolitan dailies I miss from my youth. Eighteenth Century papers typically combined almanac-type features with primitive and highly partisan editorial-page commentary. It was the dialogue among commentators the Founders sought to protect, along with the squabbling among the pamphleteers and scribblers who worked in other media. The newspaper as an actual source of current news did not really get going until early in the following century. To be sure, the news in the great newspapers of the next two centuries was an invaluable adjunct to First Amendment values. And so were the ethics and the fact-checking and the aspiration toward a balanced editorial tone that came up along with them

But no one can seriously maintain that the blogosphere and the Web presence of conventional journalistic organizations leave the public either uninformed or unexposed to the interplay of political ideas. Nor can one simply ignore the size and importance of the news-gathering organizations made available by cable and satellite.

One could argue that the shared experience within communities which all subscribed to the local paper and were thus exposed to the same body of information and entertainment promoted citizenship, and a shared basis for dialogue, and that this too was of great civic value, a value tantamount to a constitutional one. A moment’s thought, though, shows that won’t fly. The constitutional impetus is toward diversity of ideas and experiences, exactly what the monopolistic homogenized local news experience militates against. True, people tend to gravitate to the websites and networks that slant the news according to their preconceptions. But the Founders framed no “fairness doctrine” when they wrote the First Amendment. And as to the shared local experience, cosmopolitanism beats provincialism in my book, every time.

Then what exactly is it whose passing I so lament? It’s mostly about aesthetics and convenience, I decide. The experience of opening a newspaper, turning to one’s favorite places, and gradually digesting the whole, whether propped up in bed, over breakfast cereal, or on a commuter train, the fun of frequenting newsstands, the gaudy display of vending boxes on a street corner – those things are not replaceable. The convenience of having other people digest the whole package for me and providing it in an assembled, portable form, is even more important. I don’t want to have to be enterprising to locate my news and my comics and my want ads and my editorials and my sports; I want it gathered, edited, printed, and handed to me on a big piece of paper.

But still. I also remember my stepdad and mom resisting for years the pressure from the phone company to direct dial their long distance calls. Having an operator do it for them was important to them for some reason that now escapes me entirely.

Will my attachment to newspapers escape my kids in similar fashion? You can almost bet on it. The sun may be setting on the newsprint era. But when it sets somewhere, it rises somewhere else. The trouble is, I happen to like it where the sun’s setting.