Alas, Poor Newspapers! We Knew Them, Rupert

Terry Teachout has a lively arts blog called “About Last Night” (www.terryteachout.com), in which he reviews the passing scene and his own life. When he is not doing these things, he urges artists and other readers to get with the Internet age. We are slow learners, so he can sound like the sergeant-major barking orders at the native levies. But since he is always interesting and often right, these exhortations to obey our online overlords are worth reading, too.

Mr. Teachout linked a speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, on the future of daily newspapers. Mr. Murdoch owns more newspapers than you do, so his opinions on the medium are not an idle thumb-suck. Newspapers, he said, have had a great run. From Gutenberg to radio, they had a news monopoly. Even after radio and TV began whittling away their market share, rising population kept the absolute numbers up. Even after the absolute numbers began falling in the 1990’s, profitability continued to increase. But the dollars are now following the departing readers.

“We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it,” he said.

They “want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it. They want to question, to probe …. Unless we awaken to these changes and adapt quickly, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans.”

As I read it, Rupert Murdoch was being polite. What he was telling his colleagues was: Newspapers are dead.

Newspapers were more than the particular paper you read. They were part of the dawn, with toothpaste, coffee and trying to find the right sock. You got a rape and a war, weather and box scores, James Reston or Jimmy Breslin. If you read The Times, you got “Reports From Greenland Are Unclear.” If you read the tabs, you got “RIPS OUT HEART, STOMPS ON IT.” Now that’s all gone. Now, three or six times a day, you get Glenn and Jonah and Mickey and Andrew and Drudge and Debka. You get Page 3 and hyper-Catholics, Bush Lied and Iraq the Model, hobbits in prehistoric Indonesia and elephants who foresaw the tsunami. You definitely do not get Thomas L. Friedman. If you need to, you can check a line in Blackstone’s Commentaries or The Duke of Earl. It’s like channel surfing, only there are thousands more channels and you spend even less time on any of them. It all takes 15 minutes, and after a meal or a trip to the water cooler, you do it all again.

And this is what the middle-aged do, the people who remember Italian Popes and books. How to imagine the experience of those who have grown up with all this? The young impinge mostly when they are being obnoxious, walking a midriff down Third Avenue and yelling into a headset, “I’m on Third Avenue and 32nd Street, I’m on Third Avenue and 33rd Street, I’m on Third Avenue and 33rd-and-a-half Street.” But talk is the least of it. You go online, you listen to the music of the spheres, you send and receive pictures, you send and receive moving pictures. Dick Tracy used to wear a two-way wrist radio (carefully labeled every time it appeared). Soon we will have-maybe we already have; how would I know?-100-way wrist home-entertainment centers.

Some newspapers will survive. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post will become, as to a great extent they already are, national institutions, producing daily tours d’horizon. When Henry Luce founded Time, critics wondered why anyone would want to read week-old news. Plenty of people, it turned out, wanted to read week-old news if it was presented with attitude. Nowadays, last week is as distant as last millennium, but yesterday will still provoke some curiosity.

The new WSJ, NYT and WaPo will be interesting and useful, but they won’t be what they were. Other newspapers will dwindle to sheets of shopping coupons, with notices of weddings and school-board meetings.

The new world will not be better, despite the chest-thumping of the blogosphere, only differently bad (and differently good). What does the Drudge Report do now? It breaks a few stories and links to a zillion newspapers. What will it link to in the future? The interested, who will write for a fee, and the angry, who will write for free. Stout Murdoch with eagle eyes stares at the dreck. In the wastes, a few honest and industrious souls will worry little bits of truth. The great bet of the Internet is that the ease of access will make those little bits universally available. It can’t be worse than depending on Les Moonves.

Meanwhile, we say farewell to a great body of lore. Catholics have mourned Pope John Paul II. Journos will mourn their stories. I think of the ones I have collected, at first- and secondhand, even in my short and marginal career. Memorable headlines: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” “HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR.” National Review, irked at the wall-to-wall coverage of the Pentagon Papers, writing its own and fooling The Washington Post. John Corry writing up the premiere of 42nd Street, at which David Merrick announced Gower Champion’s death at the curtain. Claudia Rosett, reporting from Tiananmen Square. Rewriting this column on Sept. 11, 2001. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, all their successors up to John F. Burns-good night, guys, good night.

Enough about you, how will this affect me? I will keep doing what I have been trained to do, modified by what I must do. Thanks for the heads-up, Terry.