Entry from February 19, 2009

About the dire condition of America’s beloved newspaper industry, there is yet more wailing and gnashing of teeth today from Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post and Paul Starr in The New Republic. What, will the line of journo Jeremiahs stretch out to the crack of doom? “A wave of newspaper shutdowns seems likely this year as revenue continues to plummet,” writes Mr Kurtz:

Tribune Co. and the Minneapolis Star Tribune are bankrupt. The Seattle Post- Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News are for sale and will probably close if buyers cannot be found. Layoffs, buyouts and cutbacks are endemic. Even among the biggest papers, the [New York] Times has folded its Metro section into the paper, while The [Washington] Post has killed its Sunday Source section and is dropping Book World as a separate section.

Mr Starr agrees, noting that newspapers in general

are also shrinking in numbers of pages, breadth of news coverage, features of various kinds, and home delivery of print editions. All over America, as newspaper revenues plummet — by the end of 2008, ad sales were down about 25 percent from three years earlier — publishers cannot seem to shed editors, reporters, and sections of their papers fast enough. And there is more pain to come. According to a December forecast by Barclays Capital, advertising revenue will drop another 17 per cent in 2009 and 7.5 per cent more the year after. Even The New York Times, which has seen its cash reserves fall and its debt downgraded, is unlikely to escape the massive contraction now accelerating throughout the industry.

“Should we care?” he asks — and goes on to answer that he rather thinks we should. To those who are “so angry at the mainstream media — the reviled ‘MSM’— that they see the economic misery of the press as a deserved comeuppance,” people who might be inclined to say, “Let the bastards suffer,” he has this warning to offer: think of the corruption in government that will go unexposed because of the shortage of investigative reporters to cover it.

Naturally, all this bad news about the once-prosperous media cuts me to the heart, but I’m not so sure about the fear of rampant corruption to follow. Mr Starr quotes that ever-reliable apologist for the media culture, Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center”s Project for Excellence in Journalism, as saying that “More of American life will occur in shadows. We won”t know what we won”t know.” As it happens, I’m more worried about what we do know, which are the corruptions of the media culture itself, plain as day to some of us, though invisible to all the likes of Messrs Starr and Rosenstiel. I have helpfully summarized them in a book, should these gentlemen care to read it, called Media Madness. But let that go.

I believe that real reason newspapers are already on the way down the tubes is not the recession and consequent decline in ad revenue or the free news content supplied by the Internet or competition from other media. It’s that they are so boring. Even the investigative stuff is mostly boring. What is uncovered is less often genuine corruption — and Americans used not to mind a little “honest graft” so much anyway — than the sad little hypocrisies of Tom Daschle or Tim Geithner which may (Daschle) or may not (Geithner) ruin political careers but arguably do little to promote good government. And of course most of the alleged corruption of the Bush administration was nothing of the sort to those who were not already engaged in partisan warfare against it.

If I am right in identifying boredom as the problem, I also offer free of charge an idea for solving it. Just as absurdism and distortion of conventional methods of representation shook up the boring old art world of a century ago, so might the same techniques perform a like service for the newspaper business. The idea came to me as I was reading this morning’s London Daily Telegraph and came upon a story by Sarah Knapton headed: “Teenage backpacker ‘died from excitement’ in Thailand.” Who, I thought, would not want to read that story. And once Miss Knapton got into it, it got even better:

A teenage backpacker may have collapsed and died from ‘excitement’ on a train in Thailand after suffering a sudden brain haemorrhage, an inquest heard. Algernon Lendrum, 19, who was known by friends and family as Mr Lendrum, was travelling with a friend last summer when he keeled over as their over night train reached Bangkok. . .

Alas, although the story goes on to tell us all about the burst aneurysm that killed poor Mr Lendrum, it never gets around to explaining the curious detail that his friends and family called him by that name rather than Algernon, or Algie, as you might expect.

This unexplained detail is what suggests to me the touch of absurdist comedy — at least for those of us who were not among the unfortunate Mr Lendrum’s friends and family — and what it might contribute to the gaiety of nations. That, plus the old-fashioned, Wildean name, Algernon, suggest that the whole thing must be an invention, a joke — perhaps the beginning of a long-lost story by Saki that some wag at the Telegraph thought he would try to pass off as a news item. All of a sudden, we forget whether we’re reading a respectable paper or The Onion, and that can only be a step in the right direction for our beleaguered newspaper industry. After all, The Onion isn’t cutting back or laying off its staff in massive numbers, is it? Our media have long been a joke. It’s time for them to acknowledge the fact.


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