The New Orleans Times-Picayune has just announced it will soon publish no more than three times a week and devote the rest of its energies, reduced by a diminished staff, to the internet version of itself. The announcement struck me as a surrender, even a betrayal.
When I was a boy I learned that the morning newspaper was a modern miracle. It arrested all the events of the world at a moment in time every day and lay them before me. It was as if the world stopped at, say, midnight so that I could stop and take in all its wonders. There was an order to this. Great editors placed the stories in a way that caught my eye and mind, holding my attention before releasing me to the lure of other stories. A wise reader could sit on top of the world for an hour or two. I sometimes felt like that and still do.
In New Orleans, however, the world will stop for readers only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. These days were not chosen because they are days when the world is most active, most in need of a stop. They were chosen because they are good market days, days when newspapers are chock full of ads. It would be hard to maintain my image of the morning newspaper as a miracle on such an erratic schedule.
Now there are well-educated people with demanding jobs who tell me they get all their news from the New York Times on the internet, nytimes.com. They insist they are as well informed as ever. I can’t understand their enthusiasm. The Times website, like most news websites, is in constant flux, changing with every new development. The latest news always seems like the most important news even when it is insignificant. The news beats your mind constantly, pulling you this way, then that, never stopping. The news is ubiquitous but never ordered. I myself check in every few hours to see if there is a late-breaking story. But I still need my New York Times newspaper in the morning to feel on top of the world. I do not believe the addicts of the Times website ever feel that.
There is a marvel in all this: the persistence of image. I am in my eighties now and I still look on the morning newspaper the way I did as a child. Of course, I now know my image is a phoney one. After more than a half-century in the news business, I know that the newspaper did not capture the world at a single moment. Some of the articles were written weeks ago and held back by editors hunting for space. Much of the rest clacked in all day, in bits and pieces. Some even thundered in after midnight, rushed into place without checking. Yet my illusion persists. It is a wonderful illusion, putting order on so much cacophonic confusion.
I also must add that many American newspapers are so flimsy and meager that they can not support my illusion. When the world stopped for them, they picked up very little. But I still read the New York Times, surely the world’s greatest newspaper, every morning, and I have no doubt every morning that the world certainly stopped for its editors.
Young people, tweeting & texting & facebooking & catching tidbits of news that stream across the bottom of the television screen, seem to thrive on cacophonic confusion. That is why the conventional wisdom these days holds that newspapers are dying and dying fast. Conventional wisdom is often but not always wrong, and the future, at least to me, seems cloudy and ill-formed.
There must be others who feel the same illusion as I do. At the least, there must be others who hunger for order. Perhaps even some young people need and want a respite from all the noise of news. A couple of million readers would be enough to support a national newspaper. A couple of million more would support two or three. The New York Times publishes all over the country now and could thrive. The Wall Street Journal might challenge the Times. The Washington Post is another possibility as a national newspaper.
The loss of a large number of mid-sized newspapers, many of them mediocre, would not be so wrenching if two or three great national newspapers took their place. The world and its news would still stop for me.