National Commentary

‘Editor & Publisher’ Bites the Dust

bentonmugThe death announcement of the venerable Editor and Publisher magazine last week is the latest body blow to the institution of print newspapers. E&P was founded in the height of the Gilded Age in 1884 to assist in the information explosion that attended the Industrial Revolution as telegraph and telephone lines began sewing the planet into a dizzying network of human communications. Adopting its E&P name at the turn of the century, it refereed the fierce competition between Hearst and Pulitzer for the growth of their daily newspapers.

bentonmugThe death announcement of the venerable Editor and Publisher magazine last week is the latest body blow to the institution of print newspapers. E&P was founded in the height of the Gilded Age in 1884 to assist in the information explosion that attended the Industrial Revolution as telegraph and telephone lines began sewing the planet into a dizzying network of human communications. Adopting its E&P name at the turn of the century, it refereed the fierce competition between Hearst and Pulitzer for the growth of their daily newspapers.

In that era, daily newspapers were the end product of the profoundly transformational role of quick and global access to information that was in its heyday when my grandmother was born (as in saying, not so long ago).

They multiplied in numbers in every major urban center, as fast as and faster than invention and commerce, itself. Five, sometimes six, dailies in the same city became the norm, flying up and down the avenues as the Empire State and Chrysler buildings of the world rose out of the ground to reshape the horizons of the entire globe.

As the Industrial Revolution opened up endless streams of new opportunities, a news-thirsty public devoured the latest bulletins that lent a hand to their entrepreneurial and creative ambitions.

But now, alas, the mighty E&P, the binding force behind the scenes of the rise of the great American institution, the newspaper, has coughed up its last ounce of phlegm and expired.

The litany of major newspapers that have gone down in the last few years, or are in the process, is already too well known to everyone paying attention. But when did the decline begin? Were the seeds sewn in the post-World War II flight to suburbia, and the atomization of households and individuals behind picket fences, dulling their minds seated in front of television’s babble?

Was it when Americans bought into the idea that they were no longer citizens and builders, but consumers, substituting a passion for living and creating with a passive satiation of appetites for the latest household appliance and big car? Did it start with the systematic shortening of the national attention span?

It wasn’t so much that newspapers were hurt by the rise of radio and television in the pocket book, except in an indirect way. Instead, it was what radio and television did to reinforce the passivity of the American public.

Genuine nightly news of the old Edward R. Murrow variety back then, presented by the national television networks without advertising, served to drive people to more complete accounts in their newspapers. But while nobody can argue against the benefits of some escapist entertainment, everything else on TV became modern versions of  “bread and circuses.”

Newspapers were slowly sucked into the same paradigm, and at the same time were savagely gutted and looted by Wall Street speculators who discovered their  short-term potential as publicly-traded profit centers.

But with the rise of the Internet has come a new paradigm, and its threat is not to newspapers per se, but to the evolved irrelevancy of newspaper content. The Internet, in the context of the opportunities and liabilities of the necessary global shift away from fossil fuel-dependent growth, has fueled a new popular thirst for information and knowledge, and away from drivel.

In this context, the inability to keep pace by dumbed-down daily newspaper behemoth relics of the industrial age is what has caused their demise.

But whereas this new revolution of the public’s interest and access to real, substantive information and knowledge will not only condemn the existing newspaper model, it will spur a renewed interest in good, retooled newspapers as the best, most flexible and adaptable carriers of fresh, relevant content.

Unlike the Internet, newspapers socialize information and bind together communities of interest. They don’t particularize, they socialize, news. If the public has indeed rekindled its interest in news that matters because of the Internet, there will be an increasing, not a diminished, role for good newspapers, and maybe even a renaissance as they begin to get the blend between community-building discourse and relevant information right.

 

Nicholas Benton may be e-mailed at [email protected]