The twilight of the gods
John Podhoretz examines the Newseum, a half-billion dollar tribute of the news industry to itself "on a scale that would have gladdened the heart of Ramses II" with a morbid fascination. Podhoretz writes:
For newspapers, these are the end times, or something very much like them. Every week provides a new marker on the road to apocalypse: hundreds of layoffs in Los Angeles, circulation scandals in Dallas and Long Island, buyout packages in New York and Washington. Newspaper-circulation numbers are released twice a year, and for the past decade those numbers have charted an uninterrupted downward curve, accelerating at speeds now approaching an avalanche. Designed as a monument to the daily, the Newseum may in fact be its mausoleum, with the marble First Amendment slab serving as its tombstone.
The problem for newspapers wasn't technology. Indeed, the newspapers embraced technology with the zeal of the newly converted, the better to manage its effects. Podhoretz recalls:
So clearly did news organizations see the threat posed by the computer that they mobilized to address it, to get ahead of it, and to manage it. In the 1980’s, they spent hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars in the effort. To take one example, the Washington Post Co., a well-run and far-thinking industry leader, sank nearly $50 million into an electronic news service called Datatext.
But what the papers couldn't control was that technology was simultaneously changing the market. In particular it was destroying the mass market for standardized news. "It was universally understood that the mass audience for news was shrinking—the same audience on which the business relied in order to sell subscriptions and advertising. Readership had already declined by 50 percent since the advent of television. Young adults who had never developed the habit of reading a paper as children were showing no inclination to pick it up later in life."
The newspapers were getting better at selling the same product to an ever declining pool of readers. Nowhere did the knife go deeper than in sale of advertising space. "Katharine Graham, who ran the Washington Post, once told me that the primary reason she was worried about the future of her paper lay with the threat posed by the computer to, of all things, classified advertising."
As the information market fragmented and found new channels the classifieds followed them. And like the great English country mansions that still dot its landscape, the newspapers were left with their facades and not much else. "All they will have left is a very powerful brand—the term we now use for what used to be called a name. That brand will be worth a very great deal, but it will not be worth enough on its own to produce the kind of comprehensive news portrait that has been the defining purpose of urban and regional newspapers for a century and a half." Podhoretz doesn't know what model will replace the newspaper. But he has high hopes.
After much study, the Newseum’s researchers have determined that Katharine Graham’s husband, Philip, the editor of the Washington Post, was the first person to utter the phrase, “News is the rough first draft of history.” ... But read the sentence again: “news is the rough first draft of history.” There is a very becoming modesty at work here. For as every writer knows in his marrow, and every editor knows to his annoyance and grief, the central quality of a rough first draft is that it is full of mistakes.
Nor is this very rough first draft expected to improve on a second reading. It is supposed to be superseded by something else. Something better.
Something different, to be sure.
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