FOR THE PRESS
"Ah! Just what I like. More little tidbits of news I can read quickly. This is almost as good as TV!"
"Say, this Nachman fella
sure looks interesting.
Too bad reading is such
Timidity and dull writing
helping kill newspapers
By GERALD NACHMAN
All five newspapers Ive worked for in my checkered career are in major trouble, but thats not the depressing part. Any newspaper person, past or present, can probably make the same statement. And even thats not the really depressing part, which is that newspapers themselves are said to be nearing extinction, cultural artifacts soon to join silent films and old radio shows in the national media museum. In a hundred years, will archeologists be excavating back copies of The New York Times like cave writings?
Such a dire forecast seems almost in the realm of science fiction--see Fahrenheit 451 --but all indications appear to support such a dreary scenario: continued loss of readers (and of reading itself!), soaring newsprint costs, sudden distrust of journalists and, of course, the rise of the Internet as an alternative, if more sterile, news source.
For those of us who grew up with printers ink on our hands, its hard to imagine replacing the tactile pleasure of handling a newspaper, scanning it, folding it this way and that, tearing out recipes and funny fillers, reading the ads and assorted effluvia. Scrolling news stories mechanically and staring at them one at time through a window seems like more of a homework assignment--research, like scanning stories on microfiche.
Weve read all the doomsday reports on The End of Newspapers, but two rarely, if ever, cited reasons are (1) newspapers sudden lack of self-confidence (aided by a new masochistic tendency to beat themselves up) and (2) the humdrum level of writing found in most newspapers today. Copycat editing and drab writing are driving readers away, which have given newspaper people a wrenching inferiority complex, brought on partly by themselves.
Of the five newspapers Ive worked for, each somehow lost its way after I left (Id like to make a connection but cant quite). They also lost their vitality and their identity and, eventually, their soul and self worth. The San Jose Mercury News, when I joined it straight out of college in 1960, was a fat (almost obese with food and car sections), swaggering, conservative paper that seemed a bit like an inflated shopper.
It resembled a smaller version of the old Oakland Tribune (where I worked later) and Los Angeles Times--other conservative papers in the `60s bursting at the seams with ads that all but smothered editorial matter. At the Merc and Trib, gnarled old timers turned out workmanlike but uninspired copy and editorials protected the status quo. The papers had no social conscience and few, if any, memorable homegrown columnists.
The Mercury played by old rules and got the job done without ruffling any feathers. San Jose was still a small town then and the Mercury and News (the ill-fated evening paper that folded without mourning a few years later) reflected it. The Mercury was a drowsy paper for a sleepy pre-dot-com town of prune orchards and taquerias.
But in the 1980s, the Mercury--maybe inspired by what Otis Chandler did at the L.A. Times--became a reputable, highly regarded newspaper, revered by people who had never read it but who, largely on hearsay, compared it favorably to the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. It got serious, won major prizes and regularly found itself on the list of good second-tier newspapers. Its fortunes rose during the Silicon Valley boom, suddenly emboldened by the dot-com explosion. As one Mercury columnist told the New York Times recently, We felt we were on the edge of being a great newspaper.
Then something happened again (I was long gone so I cant pinpoint the in-house problems) and fell back into mediocrity. It lost its edge and forward thrust and now seems to reside somewhere between decent and dull. The pizzazz went out of the Mercury amid grumbling by respected longtime staffers who departed, or were chased away--unappreciated, bitter and betrayed. After a Pulitzer Prize, complacency descended upon it, a pall set in. The bubble burst, wrote the New York Times last month, but Silicon Valley has come back. The Mercury News, however, has not. Ouch. Adds its ex-publisher Jay T. Harris: The paper is quite different and quite diminished.
The Mercury News went on the trading block after Knight Ridder was sold to the McClatchy chain, which double-crossed publisher Tony Ridder (I was just stunned, he told The Times), and was just bought by MediaNews, the growing media conglomerate. Deciding that the Mercury News profit level is too low, 9%, McClatchy (cheered as its savior at first) peddled it to the highest, not the best, bidder. It looks as if the paper may slide back to where it was when I joined it as a TV critic/humor columnist 46 years ago.
In 1966, after a fling at the New York Post, I went to the Oakland Tribune as theater and movie critic, and was there during its heyday. When I left, in 1971, it was not a great newspaper but it was robust and full of itself and the readers treated it with more reverence than they did any other East Bay institution. The Tribune was the unrivaled voice of the city. True power radiated not from City Hall but from the rococo Tribune Tower, which looked out over the city like a mighty fortress at 13th & Franklin Sts.
Brusque, bullet-domed ex-Senator William F. Knowland still was in charge. He kept the paper a right-wing voice that mainly reported on Oaklands white establishment despite audible rumblings within a seething black and radical-left community that finally exploded--to the Tribs great shock and dismay--with the Black Panthers in Oakland and the Free Speech movement in Berkeley. The paper was unprepared to cover the ethnic explosions of the 1960s and `70s, and held onto longtime readers until they died or moved to Orinda and became Contra Costa Times readers. Its robust 250,000 circulation in the 1970s is now down to an anemic 70,000.
The Tribune (also my boyhood paper) lost much of its vitality and purpose after Knowland got mixed up with a gold-digging mistress, divorced his wife and soon thereafter, in deep debt, killed himself in a tawdry Las Vegas affair. The papers leadership was assumed by his charming but ineffectual son, Joe Jr., whose heart was in performing, not publishing--a song and dance man at Bohemian Club events. After several years in limbo, the Tribune drifted into obscurity and is now a sad imitation of its old self. As Oakland has grown and flexed its suburban muscles, the Tribune has shrunk editorially, along with a dwindling readership, no match for the self-confident Contra Costa Times that now serves the Tribs aging `50s and `60s readers.
Not even Robert Maynard, the much-admired black editor-publisher, could turn things around in Oakland. By the time Maynard died, the paper was near death itself, saved only by an act of mercy in the person of MediaNewss Dean Singleton, the Utah suburban-newspaper baron who collects dying papers and turns them into innocuous franchises. Singleton, perhaps unfairly reputed to have no vision for anything above the bottom line, cut the Tribune staff from 630 to 280--and yet it survives, barely. In his defense, Knight Ridder, Gannett and most chains have also cut staffs ruthlessly.
An industry once ruled by roistering buccaneers like Pulitzer, Hearst, Patterson and McCormick is now run by timid, unimaginative bean counters. Now that the Mercury News has fallen into Singletons hands, along with the Contra Costa Times, two Philadelphia newspapers and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Singleton (who also just stuffed the Detroit News into his carriers bag) has emerged as a sort of Hearst Lite.
The Tribune, like the Mercury News, had a proud if benighted history but somehow lost its zest. With the right publisher, it might have become a better paper than ever, like the Los Angeles Times; instead, all of its resources and energies were spent staying afloat. Like the Merc, the Trib was on the verge of becoming a great paper but lacked a deep-pocketed visionary, like the L.A. Times Otis Chandler, to make it happen.
Once the rambunctious and resourceful cable news networks and the Internet came along in the 1990s, feeling their oats just as newspapers had during the `30s and `40s in the romantic Front Page era, doddering papers like the Mercury and Tribune became sitting ducks, straining to seem relevant while still playing by old 1950s rules.
Both newspapers, like papers everywhere, lack the sharp, bright writing, newsgathering fervor and inventive zeal of their lively electronic rivals--and of their own glamorous past. The passion and sassy spirit that once fueled newsrooms and made the daily paper irresistible--and crucial--has been siphoned off by rootin tootin writers and editors who inhabit the frontiers of cable news, the Web and lawless Blog City.
Newspapers have also pounded needless nails into their own coffin lids by attacking themselves and by exposing their in-house problems to a largely clueless public--almost reveling in the wretched excesses of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, etc., a few freak cases who somehow came to symbolize newspaper reporters--those once proud figures whose twin crusading godheads were Woodward and Bernstein.
Unable to resist a gory story, even when the press itself was the bloody corpse, the media has over-covered and overstated its troubles, giving the hysterical rightwing loonies on radio and Fox News a made-to-order target, the perfect straw man for conservatives to kick the perceived liberal stuffing out of. To offset a handful of crazed young careerists, newspapers decided they best get serious fast and assumed a somber, aggrieved tone, kicking themselves when down much harder than was called for. A disparaged and now laughable concept called civic journalism was briefly thought to be the answer--a laughable PR ploy to make readers love the poor put-upon press.
Civic journalism was thought by a few hapless editors to be the wave of the future, but it only weakened already disheartened newspapers hoping to romance readers for editorial help and advice. Papers relinquished a leadership role in a pitiful effort to seem reader friendly good citizens--rather than offer more exciting stories and prose.
All of which put the press into a humble, defensive crouch in the early stages of the Iraq war. The press became a drumbeater for the Bush administration during the run-up to his war, afraid to ask the hard questions lest reporters be considered un-patriotic or maybe just impolite.
Instead of taking on Bush & Co., the press--fearful for its own future and trying to curry favor with a perceived conservative public--played along, made nice, got embedded (i.e., n bed with the Pentagon) and were deftly bought off. Result: the press was readily reviled by the left as well as the right and became a bulging piñata for professional press haters and rightwing crackpots led by Ann Coulter and friends.
When I left the San Jose Mercury in 1963 (figuring they were now able to continue without me), I wound up on the old liberal New York Post, which knew exactly what it was. It had a devoted readership and a stable of writers packed with famous, now legendary, columnists like Murray Kempton and Pete Hamill, rivaled only by the New York Herald Tribunes showcase lineup (Breslin, Schaap, Wolfe, Sheehy, Kerr, et al.)
When I arrived at The Post (with fellow hires Nora Ephron and Sidney Zion) it boasted not only some of the best writers in the country, and a lively sports section that included Paul Zimmerman, Vic Ziegel, Leonard Koppet and thecolumnists.coms own Maury Allen, but sparkling reporters, ace rewrite men and editors like sharp-elbowed Ed Kosner, who went onto build New York Magazine into a must-read journalistic force.
The Post was then a liberal bastion (with a lineage dating back to its editorial founding father Alexander Hamilton), which--after decades of struggling to stay alive alongside the powerful rightwing Daily News--wound up as Rupert Murdochs yapping conservative mouthpiece opposite the newly liberal Daily News.
Both papers underwent radical journalistic facelifts that boosted the Posts circulation as the countrys politics shifted right. The citys onetime most liberal paper, with a large loyal Jewish and black readership, became like its rightwing rival. Meanwhile, the News tried to cling to its old blue collar Irish/Italian Catholic constituency but, as readers moved out of the city, or died, now has a fuzzy profile.
Trading places, the once-thoughtful Post carved out a new rowdy tabloid identity, appealing to the Newss old conservative ax murder-loving base, as the News labored to become both more upscale and liberal (about when I came aboard), but today it wanders in journalistic limbo, stranded somewhere between the Post and the N.Y. Times.
The Post is now a far tackier but healthier rag than the much improved but more problematic News--now no longer sure what it is, or who its readers are. While I was there, in the 1970s, the Daily News sold a million papers a day, two million on Sundays, now reduced to 730,000 and counting, with the Post breathing down its neck. Each paper tries to define itself without getting noticeably sleazier than its rival. Whatever they are, theyre at least vivid old time newspapers.
My most recent hitch, 14 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, saw the paper slip not merely in circulation from 750,000 to 385,000 but, more tellingly, from a famously wild and crazy newspaper to a more staid, predictable, colorless one. It was never a great paper but it was always entertaining and eccentric--as revealed in the oft-quoted line from All the Presidents Men, when Jason Robards Ben Bradlee tells an editor to sell some wacky feature to the San Francisco Chronicle, sneering, Theyll buy anything.
When I left, in 1993, the Chronicle was still coasting on its reputation, deservedly so, with columnists like Herb Caen, Art Hoppe and Jon Carroll carrying on a stylish tradition that, years earlier, had also boasted the spunky likes of Charles McCabe, Stanton Delaplane, Terrence OFlaherty and Amistead Maupin, with caustic critics like John Wasserman, Allan Temko and Tom Albright. Whatever it was not, it was a terrific writers paper, with flair, sauciness and a sure sense of itself, a true reflection of the eccentricity that still defines the city.
Its sole insecurity was that it was not taken seriously, routinely dismissed by the journalistic establishment. Then all of those beloved, avidly read columnists died or retired, leaving only Jon Carroll and Steven Winn to carry on in the old Chronicle literary tradition. Carroll, 25 years there, regularly turns out unpredictable columns on everything, often funny and always smart, if occasionally unfathomable or too politically correct. Winns columns on The Culture are insightful and engrossing, wherever his instincts lead him; the Chronicle should be commended for giving Winn, its longtime theater critic, free rein to write on any aspect of pop culture that catches his watchful eye.
And yet the Chronicle is far less fun to read now than it once was. Earnest efforts to attract respect and win awards has led to eye-glazingly long series on worthy subjects. What was once a rollicking good read is now a surprisingly mundane newspaper that no longer reflects San Franciscos flair and (often ersatz) sophistication.
The Chronicle was always self-satisfied, with no competition from the increasingly drab, unmissed Examiner (now a flimsy throwaway), but at least it was a kick to peruse--and to kick around. Bay Area readers now turn to the national edition of the New York Times for flair and sophistication; the current Chronicle, sadly, reads too many mornings like the Fresno Bee.
For reasons that defy explanation, editor Phil Bronstein dumped two of its liveliest columnists, Adair Lara and the irascible Glenn Dickey, and killed Tom FitzGeralds compendium of sports daffiness. Even so, the sports columnists remain the papers liveliest section, led by the readable Bruce Jenkins and Ray Ratto, but the section lost two of its shrewdest columnists, C.W. Nevius and Joan Ryan, to routine general columns not nearly as vital as their old sports stuff. Its as if there was a conscious effort to downsize the papers tradition of great columnists just when it should be nourishing them to attract eyes newly hypnotized by the Internet.
The daily Datebook, my old home, boasts the popular, unpredictable Mick LaSalle on movies and the oft-deft but oft-goofy Tim Goodman on TV. The section is a gray mushy porridge--part lifestyle section, part arts and entertainment, parts whatsis. The old People section was killed 15 years ago, a great showcase for writers like Michael Robertson, Steve Rubenstein and Alice Kahn, and cries out to be revived.
Beyond that, no new major Chronicle columnists have emerged, despite desperate efforts to attract younger readers with bloggish writers like Mark Morford and Neva Chonin, both annoyingly impenetrable. Jean Gonicks weekly foray into functional dementia, Failing at Living, had a promising start but has run out of schizoid steam. Most of its columnists, which once gave the paper its flavor and identity, have little personality.
The paper has, to its great credit, nourished three superb cartoonists--longtime editorial cartoonist Tom Meyer (now on much-missed hiatus), the inspired (former Examiner find) satirist Don Asmussen, whose wickedly clever comic-strip takes on the days news are as good as anything anywhere, and unlike anything anywhere, with a wacky, surreal underground sensibility. Phil Franks milder Farley, now in its 30th year, gently mocks Bay Area inanities and scores a high percentage of bullseyes. If only The Chronicle could find a few columnists whose wit matched Meyer, Asmussen and Frank.
Because the Chronicle is now the only game in town (like most cities), it seems to feel less need to be inventive and develop the punchy writing that helped make its name (and fortune) and that could attract fresh readers. The Chronicle is now a better investigative paper--reflecting Bronsteins own reportorial strengths, like the baseball steroid scandal that the Chronicle uncovered to deserved national attention--but what price glory?
If any of my old papers, for each of which I still have degrees of affection, expect to return to their former glory days, theyll need to assert their old selves, announce their individuality with more vital writing and come out of their apologetic, defensive crouch. The way for newspapers to fight off the upstart electronic competition is with the ancient tools of their trade: information, imagination and, maybe most of all, a lost literary flair.
©2006 by Gerald Nachman. The cartoons are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted May 10, 2006.
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