Watching the Rocky Mountain News bite the dust on Friday gave me a little pang, and not just because it was the latest in a string of quality old papers to close. It and the Denver Post were the papers I competed with, and even occasionally scooped, while working on my college paper, The Metropolitan.
One year we pulled off an April Fool’s prank, printing a faux Rocky Mountain News front page — the weather forecast was “hotter than hell” — with The Metropolitan tucked inside. We emptied a number of News dispensers around the campus in downtown Denver, and filled them with the doctored version of the paper.
It wasn’t long before one of the college deans paid a visit to our newsroom. But the News was a good sport about it, even complimenting us on our reportage and writing when it published a little story explaining the stunt to its readers.
Now it’s gone, along with the Kauai bureau of the Star-Bulletin, where I worked as the sole correspondent from 1994 to 1997 and got to do a bunch of cool stuff, like go to Midway and Niihau. The Maui and Big Island bureaus closed Friday, too, and I’m feeling for Rod Thompson, Gary Kubota and Tom Finnegan — reporters I’ve known for a long time, who are now without jobs.
As the Oahu dailies hunker down in Honolulu, the voices of Neighbor Islanders will grow even fainter, and our needs and interests will slip further from the consciousness of the decision-makers, money-distributors and power-brokers who congregate there.
But it's not just the dimming of the already distant planets that circle Honolulu’s sun that troubles me. It’s the loss of all that institutional memory. When a number of veteran journalists leave a paper all at once, especially those with specialized expertise, like Ken Kobayashi, the outstanding courts reporter who lost his beat at both the Bulletin and Advertiser, it loses some of its soul. Because it’s that memory that allows a reporter to pick up on the nuances of a situation, put things in context for the reader, make connections that might otherwise get loss — in short, give a story depth.
Still, maybe depth isn’t what a Twitter-crazed society desires anymore.
As I watch the diminishment and demise of daily printed newspapers, which are the foundation of my profession, I’m left wondering where the information biz is going from here. Surely some people still want access to real news and original reporting, the kind that unpaid bloggers and “citizen journalists” have neither the time nor skill to provide with much consistency.
Then I stumbled on a recent New Yorker article that delved into the last time the newspaper biz was in its death throes, and that was 1765, when Parliament levied the stamp tax on the colonies. In providing a bit of historical perspective, Jill Lepore writes:
Maybe if we knew more about the founding hacks, we’d have a better idea of what we will have lost when the last newspaper rolls off the presses. If the newspaper, at least as a thing printed on paper and delivered to your door, has a doomsday, it may be coming soon. Not so soon as weeks or months, but not so far off as decades, either. The end, apparently, really is near. That makes this a good time to ask: what was the beginning about?
And as she points out, it was about radicalism, speaking truth to power, even fomenting revolution:
Because early newspapers tended to take aim at people in power, they were sometimes called “paper bullets.” Newspapers have long done battle with the church and the state while courting the market. This game can get dangerous.
Early American newspapers tend to look like one long and uninterrupted invective, a ragged fleet of dung barges. In a way, they were. Plenty of that nose thumbing was mere gimmickry and gambolling. Some of it was capricious, and much of it was just plain malicious. But much of it was more. All that invective, taken together, really does add up to a long and revolutionary argument against tyranny, against arbitrary authority—against, that is, the rule of men above law.
You don’t mess with the men who work the presses. After all, the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” was made famous by a man who wanted his gravestone to read “B. Franklin Printer.
Some of those early printers went to jail, imprisoned under the Sedition Act, which made it a federal crime to defame the government of President John Adams. Others died disenchanted and destitute. Lapore continues:
To tell the story this way, as a struggle between tyranny and liberty … is to write a Whig history, something that historians generally sniff at, mainly because eighteenth-century Whigs (and Whig printers) saw their world in just this way, with themselves on the side of liberty, and people aren’t to be trusted in accounting for their own place in history. Whig history is suspect, in other words, for much the same reason that Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is suspect. It’s too tidy. Most struggles, like most lives, are messier. Newspapers aren’t always on the side of liberty. Not everyone agrees on what liberty means. Some struggles never end. And it’s not the newspaper that’s forever at risk of dying and needing to be raised from the grave. It’s the freedom of the press.
Can that freedom be preserved, or even strengthened, in cyberspace? Maybe. But that doesn’t change the fact that gathering news, or even opinion, takes time, and in today’s world, just in the eighteenth century, time is money. As newspapers wither and die, it’s not the loss of the printed word that’s at stake, but the funds to pay folks to research and write them, day in and day out. And that’s what worries me.
Because in a capitalist society, some freedoms aren’t, and never have been, free.
Finally, have you been catching the Venus-Moon show in the western sky the last couple of evenings?