“Stop kidding yourselves. You and your schools, your television, your complacent newspapers, you are the great preservers of this appalling tradition that is based on the idea of possessing and destroying.”
— Pier Paolo Pasolini
I think this is the part where I’m supposed to launch a great in memoriam for the fallen newspapers, make a case for why they’re still important, and assemble great amounts of historical and current data to show you why you, the reader of not-that-many-if-any newspapers are doing yourself a great disservice. You are letting newspapers die, and newspapers are the only thing standing between politicians, law enforcement, corporations, criminals, education boards, every industry ever in operation, and unchecked corruption, which would in the end hurt you, yes you, and your way of life.
I’m not that attached to the idea, though — there are clear examples out there of what great journalism looks like, and what it can do, and no one likes to see hard-working, extremely skilled, big-hearted people lose their jobs. But what are people talking about when they say that the journalism being lost was fixing the world, bringing communities together, was continuing a great tradition, etc.? They went under because of poor management, yes, but also because hardly anyone was reading them. The loss of the papers in Nanaimo and Guelph and what they represent (and the possible future of the demise of the Vancouver Sun and the Province, now shoved into a single newsroom), is a horror story for archivists and a poignant loss for those who made paper-reading part of their daily routine. But we aren’t losing journalism, we’re seeing its old routines condemned.
A lot of the questions and theories and ideas that newspapers across the country are printing in response to these cuts can be seen as what happens when an entire profession is threatened. There are a lot of regrets and bitter feelings — this could have been avoided, they say. But how much of a credit would it have been for the monopolized presses of Canada to continue running without any sign of distress? These are mediocre papers, papers that refuse to or are simply incapable of capturing and bringing to life the day-to-day experience of entire groups of their communities. They report on the games of politics and sports, and go to experts for opinions, and search for that coveted “human interest.” But they aren’t interested in changing; they love their digestible formats, the way each section of the paper makes the world seem comprehensible and easily mapped out, and wish they could find a way to close out the wider world the internet has let in, where there are endless options when someone is looking for a story that will make them feel less alone, more informed, closer to the world outside.
There’s still a place for newspapers, if they want to do the hard, now much harder, work of reflecting a community. But when people cite the over-100 year history of some of these newspapers that are closing, it seems worth pointing out: why did they look so similar, so many years later? People are not so limited any more: if they want to see where they live from a stratospheric or microscopic perspective, newspapers are clearly not up to the job, so long as the format forces writers to fill a daily’s pages, unable to reflect or expand on stories, which they pick up and drop according to trends and attention spans.
I’m not saying that newspapers ought to be swept out with the past. They won’t be, just like cinema has not died just because theatres were closed across the country following the shift from print to digital distribution. Just that journalists are suspect to the problem of over-practice. As Adam Grant writes in a piece for the New York Times, citing recent research on creativity, “The more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.”
Newspapers, for the most part, have become entrenched in the idea of a consistent, reliable, survey-confirmed readership. And that will kill many. They report on the same stories, year after year, with no purpose other than relaying information: that will fill pages, but it will not reach readers, and, in the end, it won’t be very good storytelling.
The great critic of journalism Janet Malcolm recently wrote for the New York Review of Books on a new collection of the writings of Joseph Mitchell. In one section of her review, she quotes from one of his letters: “My desire is to get the reader, well, first of all to read it. That story [‘The Bottom of the Harbor’] was hard to write because I had to wonder how long can I keep developing it before the reader’s going to get tired of this … I can’t tell the story I want to tell until I’ve got you into the pasture and down where the sheep are. Where the shepherd is. He’s going to tell the story, but I’ve got to get you past the ditch and through these bushes.”
Malcolm takes over after the quote, referring to Mitchell’s reputation as someone whose journalism sometimes used imagination rather than cold facts, who cared about storytelling above the standards of the time: “Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers.”
Journalists don’t have to be short-story writers, but they do have to know how to think like them: the world as not a set of facts that can be arranged in a line or thrown onto a page, but a place that constantly gives up stories, where the known and the unknown constantly encounter one another (and deserves more than a vulgarized photo and headline). The best journalism has always been about this; perhaps it could have been fostered to a greater extent at the Sun or the Province or at any other community paper. But instead of mediocrity enduring, the situation is: rip it up and start again (or find another line of work). If you look at newspapers as a job, as a career where, once someone has an education and approval from an editor, you ought to be entitled to a life in a fun, high-activity office, this is remarkably upsetting, of course. But if journalism is a responsibility, one that can’t be presupposed as blameless and good, well, it’s an opportunity to do something better than preserving an old tradition.