Wither Newspapers?

Posted by on Feb 26, 2009 in Culture | 6 comments

Gus Haynes, city editor of the fictionalized Baltimore <i>Sun</i> on HBOs The Wire.

Gus Haynes, city editor of the fictionalized Baltimore Sun on HBO's "The Wire."

In the final season of HBO’s “The Wire” Gus Haynes, the city editor at the fictionalized Baltimore Sun is outside on a smoke break after an announcement of buyouts, talking about papers and why he went into the business. In essence he said he did so because his father, when Gus was young, was never to be disturbed until he’d read the paper and finished his coffee. Anything that could command such attention became a powerful force in Gus’s life and he knew that he wanted to be a part that world.

Written by newspaper-men, the final season of “The Wire” was a paean to the old school newspaper, as much as it was a gritty cop drama focused on the drug trade of Baltimore. Sadly the dramatization of the Sun is being played out ever more frequently in the real world.

Wither newspapers? I hope not. Though deeply steeped in digital media I still have some very strong attachments to certain analog artifacts of our world: Corked wine bottles, ink-printed and bound books, and newspapers

I still get two papers, each day,The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal. While I don’t love the Globe, I enjoy its sports page and it does provide solid local news coverage. I love the Journal. I would be devastated to lose either, never mind both. I can only imagine how the 330,000 or so subscribers to the San Francisco Chronicle feel today with yesterday’s announcement by Hearst Publishing that they are either going to sell or shutter the paper.

Papers are the world delivered to the door, every day. The effort and skill that go into creating them and the ability to produce that world-recap each night and have it at the end of my driveway,or beneath my car (different story), every morning is amazing. The loss of each paper, some with long and illustrious histories, marks the death of a cultural artifact. From that perspective, news of the woes at the Chronicle, The Austin Statesman, the Rocky Mountain News, The LA Times and Chicago Tribune should upset anybody concerned with the material culture of our country.

This is not to say that some of the issues surrounding the pending demise of the newspaper industry are not to blame on the papers themselves. They were slow to adopt and adapt to the online space. They are embroiled in issues of fairness and impartiality. They were unable to match the ROI metrics of the web — the medium is the message. They were gobbled up by giant, publicly traded holding companies with much more emphasis on the bottom line than had been the norm in often, family-run, avocational-enterprises.

Now here we are.

I would say the potential death of the American newspaper is not good for the Internet, or the country. The papers provide a counterpoint to the information generated on the web and vice versa. Biased or not you know the political leanings and axes-to-be-ground of the paper’s staff and can process accordingly. This is not so evident when reading Larry-in-Wichita’s (and I’m not picking on Larry nor Wichita) coverage of the State of the Union. I’ll come back to, and close with another aspect of the materiality of the paper — there really is no replacement for the morning cup of coffee on top of the folded paper. As much as I love our laptops, it isn’t the same.


  1. Well put, and a sentiment I share. While my work has exposed to me how brutishly populist, obtuse, and entitled many newspapermen can be, the newspaper is still my preferred medium for gathering information, and I’ll be said to see it go.

  2. This is good. If my firm’s website were up and running, I’d link to it. Give me four more weeks.

  3. Thanks for your comments, they’re appreciated.
    Since I published this today the Rocky Mountain News announced that it is closing. Friday will mark the final edition of the paper that is nearly 150 years old.

    Coverage of the story

  4. I have given my 20’s and early 30’s to the idea of the American newspaper. I have never seen an episode of The Wire, but heard it was good. There is very little good left in newspapers. Sad. I would add more thoughts, but this all falls under the don’t get me started rubric. I’m still in recovery. -j.

    • you should watch the wire, I’ll lend you the DVDs.

  5. My sentiments exactly — hate to think of life post-daily newspapers. Here’s hoping the Globe can stick it out, at least until we’re too old to read anymore. Here’s a complementary viewpoint I wrote awhile back: http://thehiredpens.com/blog/?p=184.