I never worked in a newsroom where these responsibilities were seriously questioned. I also never worked in one where they were seriously honored. I don’t mean that people didn’t think they were being honored. And they were, but only in the most formulaic way imaginable. A balanced story about a political debate, for example, would carefully include the points of view on both sides of whatever issue was being examined. Never mind that there might actually be three-dozen points of view, not two. The bigger problem was that this removed the newspaper from its function as a seeker of truth. That’s not our job, we said. Instead, we wrote what we were told.
The net result was that even the best newspapers became predictable and stultifying. Color and flourish in the writing were banished. Curiosity was discouraged. At one job, there was a respected senior reporter who routinely wrote his stories before doing much if any reporting. Then he would go out to find people to tell him what he had already written. He was an extreme case—almost literally filling in the blanks—but hardly alone. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked what a particular story would say before I had done a lick of reporting on it.
Stories were edited with the idea that every reader was going to read every word and therefore the words and, more damagingly, the ideas had to be of a certain simplicity. This is such a crackpot notion it barely seems fair to critique it. No one reads the entire paper; few read most of it.
The point is that newspapers have been killing themselves slowly for a long time. So long as the monopoly profits rolled in, the death by a thousand cuts wasn’t paid any attention. When the Internet arrived to eliminate the advertising monopolies, the newspapers already had a foot in the grave.
That said, it wouldn’t hurt the Web triumphalists to acknowledge that there is something more than jobs being lost in the process of newspapers dying. Whether you liked the way they did it or not, monopoly newspapers often performed civic functions.\
The real power of a big paper is most apparent in a couple of specific circumstances. The first is when something really big happens, usually a disaster, causing huge portions of the paper’s resources to be thrown at the story. This is a sort of a reserve power, there when you need it but invisible when you don’t. I often was assigned to rewrite on these stories. It was a frustrating, exhilarating job. I could sit at my desk for the whole day, watching the inanity of cable news and waiting for reporters in the field to file. Then, as deadline for the day’s first edition approached, I would suddenly be overwhelmed with more great reporting than I could possibly use. Reporters I’d never heard of were giving me incredible stuff.
The second circumstance is when breathtaking stories you knew nothing about, but that people had been working on for months or years, suddenly appear in the paper. The depth of the newspaper’s staff allows for this relative luxury.
These two quite different kinds of reporting power are both threatened as newspapers decline. Because of their irregular, episodic nature, readers will not necessarily know they are gone, but their absence will make a community’s news culture considerably poorer.
I once gave a talk to a group of business executives about coverage of 9/11. My assignment back then was to profile the hijackers. My editor’s instructions were to go wherever I needed to go and stay as long as I needed to stay. Neither of us imagined the reporting would take three years and require travel to twenty countries on four continents. But it did. In the middle of my talk one of the executives interrupted. “This is fascinating,” he said, “but I can’t help asking: How does it cost out?” It doesn’t, of course. There isn’t much a newspaper does that pays for itself. I suppose you could think about this sort of reporting as brand management, reminding your readers you’re a serious organization. But without the subsidy of the monopoly profits, there will be less and less of this kind of coverage, if any at all.
Ours is a newspaper family. My wife and I met in a newsroom. She takes her BlackBerry to bed so she can read the next day’s New York Times the night before. We have three papers delivered every morning. I read them in thirty minutes, thirty-five if there are box scores to scrutinize. Clearly, there’s much more looking than reading going on.