Amid 2008 Campaign Cacophony on the Web, Print Reverts to Hobbesian State

Does print journalism matter in this election?

“It’s obvious, and no crime against humanity, that the world has many, many places to turn for information, misinformation, analysis, rants, etc,” wrote Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, in an e-mail. “We—The Times, The Washington Post, Politico, the news outlets that aim to be aggressive, serious and impartial—don’t  dominate the conversation the way we once did, and that’s fine, except it means some excellent hard work gets a little muffled.

“But we do want our work to be noticed,” he wrote, “and I’ve been repeatedly surprised at the rich, important stories that fail to resonate the way they deserve.”

On one level, more people read The Times, albeit in digital form, than ever. The pipeline piece did a brisk business as an e-mail forward. But so did everything else anyone had to say that day about the campaign—whether it was true or false, reported or simply asserted, fact or opinion. In-boxes crammed with New York Times articles and Huffington Post hyperlinks do not advertise their relative value or importance. Everything is equal, everything is a tie and nothing, it seems, is important anymore.

Nobody has felt this more acutely than the Newspapers and Magazines of Record in the United States. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time: all over the world of “quality” journalism, there is a feeling of decline.

“There can no longer be a Johnny Apple—a single political reporter who can set the agenda as he did when he discovered Jimmy Carter,” said Frank Rich, columnist for The New York Times. “Whether in print or on the Internet or on television.”

“At Politico we often talk about winning the morning, not just winning the day,” said Jim VandeHei, the editor of Politico. “Because the news cycle is no longer 24 hours—it might be 16 hours or even shorter.”

It works well for Politico, but if everyone is readjusting to that breakneck pace, how much real news is left? And who’s there to suss out the real from the junk?

“The story burns more intensely and then it burns out more quickly,” said Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek writer, musing about the life cycle of pieces. “And there’s so much information and so much political coverage that it’s easy for good stories to be lost entirely in that register.”

“Very few of these stories have a long finish,” said Michael Duffy, the nation editor for Time. “The gong dissipates quickly.”

“My instinct is that there is such cacophony of commentary that it does sometimes drown out ideas from good and deeply reported journalism,” said Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of The Washington Post.

“In the Internet age, the cycle is constant and people don’t really have time to reflect all day on a single story in the newspaper,” he added. “And it’s more difficult to set the agenda for very long.”

Mr. VandeHei agrees.

“One of the casualties, I think, is that powerfully reported and written stories, especially investigative and accountability ones, do not land with the impact they once did,” he said. “They might still turns heads—and thankfully at times change things—but usually they get pushed aside as the new-media machine moves to the next ‘thing.’”

But such are the pressures of trying to produce material all day—even if it’s unclear what’s actually being absorbed from the information that’s being produced.

Mr. Keller, for one, wonders what happened to the big stories The Times reported during the election cycle.

There was a Jo Becker and Don Van Natta investigative piece of Bill Clinton’s relationship with Kazakhstan—barely noticed. There was a piece in the spring by David Kirkpatrick and Jim Rutenberg about John McCain’s relationship with Donald Trump in Arizona—hardly a word.

Even a meaty, damning, 3,100-word, three-bylined front-page Sept. 14 Times piece on Sarah Palin’s management style doesn’t appear to have the same sort of impact on the campaign trail that it might once have, Mr. Keller said.

Amid 2008 Campaign Cacophony on the Web, Print Reverts to Hobbesian State