Elegy for the hack

Steve Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review, writes an eloquent elegy for the newspaperman and his myth.

Something is coming, some turn in the media universe, a turn in the future of my newspaper. A turn that will mean the end of me, of us. There will be reporters. Editors. Something called online producers and multi-media coordinators. Mojos. Slojos and Nojos. Bloggers, froggers and twitters.

But there won’t be newspapermen. At 58, I am among the last of a dying race.

And what a race it was. An American archetype.

He goes on to recall the myth of the newsroom, a myth that attracted me, too: tough guys, bad dressers, smokers, drinkers, schmoozers, crusaders on a Hollywood set with a typewriter soundtrack. Ah, the romance of it.

Oh, the danger of it. I think it is the tug of that romance that has held newspapermen back from changing, from seeing new opportunities in new challenges, from realizing that they weren’t about the myth but had a job to do.

So as much as I love what Smith wrote and how he wrote it, I disagree with him at the end when he says:

No instrument will ever serve the public interest so relentlessly as the daily newspaper. New media will successfully distribute data and information. “Communities of interest” will develop around niche products. And while print newspapers will survive to serve a small, elite audience, they never again will serve the larger geographic communities that gave them life and purpose. Democracy will have to find a new public square.

No instrument? Quite to the contrary, the instrument we have in the internet is quite promising. Its potential is not yet realized and may not be realized but it is there. What we need now are not nostalgic romantics but brave doers — aren’t newspapermen supposed to be brave? — who will recognize that potential.

Democracy has found its new public square. We’re in it. The question is: What is our role there? How can we help what happens there? What do we bring to the square?

  • The important difference I see, is that in the age of newspapers, it was more likely that everyone was hanging out in the same public square. If a major metropolitan newspaper jumped on an issue or a story, a larger percentage of the populace was reading that coverage and might be affected. Now, online readership is more diffuse.

    That said, newspapers do have opportunities they’re not following. Just as the importance of newspaper coverage changed when television came along (and later 24-hour TV news coverage), so now do newspapers need to change they way they cover events.

  • Cooler Heads

    Ahh, the glory days of past. When entire families gathered around a box full of vacuum tubes to hear the news of the war. When Dad wore a fedora and carried his paper under his arm and Mom stayed in an apron. When elected officials carried on with reporters and no one reported it. When people in newsrooms decided exactly what we needed to know and how we needed to know it.

    Good riddance.

  • Agreed re: the new public square. There is a lot of truth in what Cooler Heads says – there is always danger when knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the few. The potential for real and fundamental democratic expression is breathtaking. That said, despite the multiplication of channels and unprecedented access to information, we still need to remain vigilent, as China’s blocking of certain websites (from BBC to Amnesty International) — with the IOC’s complicity — demonstrates. We certainly live in interesting times …

  • Mike G

    “No instrument will ever serve the public interest so relentlessly as the daily newspaper.”

    And that day of relentless, sometimes rascalish service ended when most papers became local monopolies in the 60s and 70s, not when the Internet broke those monopolies 40 years later.

  • The newspaper is still an effective mode of providing the ‘public square’ – with a few modifications.

    1) No paper. It’s a no-brainer.
    2) No reporters (or lots of reporters, depending on your view) Let the readers decide what is news and what isn’t by submitting it themselves – the gatekeepers are gone.

    In just a month of operation, my tree-free online-only community newspaper has seen tremendous growth and generated quite a bit of excitement from the community. Finally, they have means of telling the story of the life and times of their city without interference.

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  • Brian O’Connell

    The loss of newspapers is a loss of communities. The technical and financial restrictions on presenting everyone a booklet every day meant that all info that was of any interest to at least a decent-sized minority was bundled together. This bundling of local news, movie listings, local sports, comics, horoscopes, weather, what have you- created a larger community than any one of those items would have. Everybody had to read the paper to get any one of those things, and was exposed to all the others.

    With the internet, there is no valid reason to continue to bundle those disparate items together. Specialists in each field can do it better, and they do it on their own sites. So we’re seeing a great unbundling, and the communities that exist around newspapers will disappear. As with any change, we lose some good, some bad, and we gain some good stuff, some bad.

  • “The loss of newspapers is a loss of communities.”

    OK, I’ll take that statement at face value, but only if you accept this one:

    “The rise of blogs is a rise of communities.”

    As for the assertion that “there is no valid reason to continue bundling” on the internet, dahlink, vot vould you say to my deeer deeer friend Arianna?

  • katie

    “So we’re seeing a great unbundling, and the communities that exist around newspapers will disappear.”

    The bundling will begin again, after the dust settles, and even now it’s happening. there will always be a need to help people who don’t want to know EVERYTHING about motorcross or trains or gardening but do what to know SOMETHING.

    “Oh, the danger of it. I think it is the tug of that romance that has held newspapermen back from changing,’

    I agree. a drunk, a rogue, a bad dresser (well, I can forgive them for that), a tough guy … (sounds more like tony soprano) … when we’re young, we all fall for a guy like that or want to be like them because they represent rebellion and individualism and giving the finger to institutionalized hypocrisy, but the morning after, if we’re lucky, we don’t marry them because a drunk is still a drunk. true rebellion is in the spirit of the internet, not romantic nostalgia.

  • Brian O’Connell

    Aaron: Yes, the rise of blogs is a rise of communities. But it’s a different community. The one that newspapers created around them will be gone. As for Arianna, I suspect that the kitchen sink approach won’t last too long- she’ll have to concentrate on the core product. But I could easily be wrong.

    katie: Sounds like you’re talking about About.com or Wikipedia. A fair point.

  • Phil Stanhope

    Have you figured out which blogger is doing to drag himself/herself out of a comfy chair and go cover the meetings of the school board/sanitation district/county commissioners … week after week, and for no pay?

  • (a) lots of people do it without pay because they want to and they care.

    (b) i have long argued that we do need a means to pay people to do this as stringers, as bloggers who get ads (which we hope asses don’t block…;-)

  • Phil – you don’t need someone to go ‘cover’ the school board meetings. There are people who care already there! All you need to do is give them a medium through which they can report what happened. Community-written newspapers (like the Cambridge Reporter) offer that.

    Yes, the coverage will be less objective than we’re used to – but it will certainly be more interesting! And if you have two or three variations of the events, an intelligent reader can figure out the the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    Of course, convincing folks to write the newspaper as well as read it is easier said than done… I’m still working on that part.