What we will lose — and gain

Thoughtful essay by Terry McDermott in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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.