The end is nigh. And it doesn’t look as most imagined. No fire and brimstone but rather an insignificant fizzle, like a lit match dropped in water.
Nationwide, newspapers are dying. This week the Tribune Co. filed Chapter 11. Readers, for whom newspapers are made, have reacted for the most part, with a collective yawn. The Times, they are a changing. So are the Tribunes, Stars and Chronicles. Deal with it.
News staff, once a whip smart mix of crusaders, truth-seekers and story-tellers, sound these days like scatter-brained Henny Pennies crying “The sky is falling,” or else sink into silent despair as expert panels discuss the business as if it were a lumbering dinosaur on the verge of extinction.
I prefer to think its experiencing warp speed evolution.
I started my first job in December of 1983, when the newspaper was still making the transition from electric typewriters to computers. Scopes, as they were called then, were newfangled and expensive so the newspaper bought only enough for copy editors. Writers composed on typewriters then quickly retyped stories, inputting on borrowed computers. Deadlines were tense for everyone. I remember trying to focus on my flickering green screen story while two grown newsmen stood on either side shouting at each other words that could never make it to print. My impression was that the younger, J-school guy with Woodward and Bernstein ambitions had no patience for the older, pulled-himself-up-by-his-typewriter-ribbons guy, who had no patience for him. I kept quiet but youth forged my alliance. Dawn had clearly broken on a new era in newspapers. Women’s sections were rechristened Lifestyles, the inverted pyramid lead was crumbling, and feature writers aspired to craft facts into literary prose. I figured the old newshound should just pack-up his chisel and stone tablet and leave to the next generation the computer age.
We ran stories back then about the coming of “The Information Age,” in caps like “The Iron Age” or the “Industrial Age” to underscore its importance. We quoted experts who tried to project how the future might look. Computers would give people facts at their fingertips, they said, everyone would have access to entire libraries. Fine, I thought, but I wasn’t about to read my young daughters “Goodnight Moon” cuddled up in bed with a computer roughly the size of a mini-fridge.
Within weeks after the newsroom got wired, the entire way we worked changed. Reporters no longer drove across town to spend hours digging through dusty manila folders or poring over microfilm to search public records. In one training exercise, our assignment was to find actress Demi Moore’s unlisted phone number. Everyone nailed it in less than three minutes. Information was just a keystroke away.
But, of course, soon similar access was available to everyone. And now that they and their brothers are blogging, twittering, pod casting and posting, the news audience is fractured into a million tiny pieces.
Newspapers tried repackaging and reinventing and rebranding but while the world sped along the information super highway it seemed all we had to offer was tricked-out ox carts. There’s been no talk of government bailouts. Maybe the public views newspaper staff as less cuddly than auto-makers because, surely, gas guzzlers are no more essential. Granted, journalists can be rather full of themselves. It’s a job hazard. Some hope to change the world with words. They try to speak for those who can’t. Some seek to shine light on the good and the bad so everyone can see more clearly. Others aim to inform, imagine, entertain; offer a surprising perspective or simply a smile. They tend to believe that what they do matters.
But maybe information and stories will look is anyone’s guess.
I remember my high school science teacher telling his class that one day every home would be equipped with a computer. And what would we do with these wonders of technology?
“Girls,” he said excitedly, “you’ll use computers to get recipes to cook for your husbands!”
Imagining the future, seeing it coming, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be prepared for it. Newspapers aren’t the only businesses suffering the consequences. Retail, travel, entertainment, real estate, finance – it’s hard to think of an industry that hasn’t had to adjust, and quickly, to survive.
Historians will one day look back and pontificate the dawning of The Information Age, analyze and theorize its significance. In the meantime, reporters, photojournalists, clerks and editors will tell the stories as they unfold, even when they are a part of the continuing Chronicle, The Tribune and, yes, The Times.
Deadlines don’t wait.