Another traditional medium that was looking precarious before the attacks may also earn new respect in a reshaped media world. Newspapers have, of course, been under an almost constant deathwatch for decades, slated for demolition by radio, by television, by the Internet, by the movies (which would soak up all available leisure), or by the car (drivers can’t read while commuting). And it’s true that the total number of newspapers, the number of independent papers and two-paper cities, and the circulation figures have all been sliding for years, while the shrinking economy has been bringing worrisome layoffs. The Newhouse family’s privately held Advance chain has been earning praise and Pulitzers for the independence and relatively unfettered budgets allowed its editors — but it has been the Gannett chain, with its mingy accounting, scrunched news holes, and unprecedented 28 percent operating margin last year, that seemed the more popular industry model.
Television, clearly, does some things very, very well, and many of those things were on display in September: it was immediate, it was riveting, it was authoritative, it never slept, and it provided a stable, familiar hearth around which strangers could gather and mourn in communion. It sacrificed its ad revenues and busted its budgets. CNN, with its man already on the ground in Afghanistan, didn’t look so outdated anymore.
Yet the crisis brought out the best in newspapers, too. Part of their appeal, of course, is exactly what Dan Rather was widely derided for acknowledging in his coverage of President Bush’s August decision on stem-cell research — that they have the capacity to handle complex matters better than television. And faced with such truly complex (and often non-visual) matters as global politics, international conspiracy, economic emergency, and the possibility of a new and covert kind of war, the newspapers that had refused to sacrifice such expensive and unfashionable assets as investigative teams, specialized beats, foreign correspondents, or international sources were quickly able to turn in some astonishing in-depth reporting on backgrounds, causes, consequences, and corollaries.
Newspapers, like broadcasts, also fulfill psychic and social roles. On September 12 those of us who lived in the “frozen zone” of lower Manhattan awoke, after a day of tragic sights, to one that in its own small way was profoundly disorienting: the doormat without a newspaper on it. Hustling north through the police barricades to the places where delivery trucks still trundled, passing delis and newsstands already depleted by ravening readers, my neighbors and I seemed to share the almost panicky conviction that no matter how many times we’d watched those TV pictures of fireballs and smoke, no matter how long we had surfed the Web while keeping an ear on NPR, somehow the whole awful event didn’t seem real yet because we hadn’t held it in our hands, hadn’t yet seen it brutally pinned beneath that familiar typeface. It took me half an hour to find the paper I needed, and as I hurried home clutching my precious find, people kept stopping me to ask where I’d gotten it. “Is that the Times?” one woman asked me wildly. “Oh God, the Times! The Times!”
Newspapers can satisfy one role that television, radio, and the Web cannot, a role that in times of crisis is more comforting and crucial than ever: they are the most tolerant and open-handed custodians we have of the public memory. That issue of September 12, 2001, which you put away in a drawer will, you can be sure, be compatible with your grandchildren — just like the copy your grandparents kept from December 8, 1941.