By N.S. Palmer
Update, October 31, 2014: I finally gave up on The New York Times and cancelled my subscription. There was still a lot of good content, but the censorship and politically-correct propaganda (on news pages) got to be too much. I get a relatively balanced picture by reading several free news sites on the web. They’re not perfect, but they’re better than The Times and they don’t cost lots of money every month.
Why subscribe to a print newspaper when you get news “for free” on the Web?
I subscribe to the print edition of The New York Times for several reasons.
My first reason is personal: I like newspapers. I always have. As a high school and college student, I was editor of my school papers and worked part-time as a copy boy for a “real” newspaper — one of the two major dailies in my city. After I earned my first doctorate, I worked for several years as a Washington DC newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist.
One of my fondest high school memories is of sitting at a long-obsolete linotype machine in the basement of The Chicago Tribune building. Newspapers used linotype machines to set hot metal type that they used to print each edition. The Trib’s editor was one of my mentors and arranged it so that I could not only sit at the machine, but even operate it for a minute. The editor has since passed away, but he made a big difference in my life.
I never took a journalism class in school because it would have been a monumental waste of time. The basics of news writing and editing can be learned in a week. What a journalist needs beyond that are insatiable curiosity, the ability to think logically and write clearly, a certain amount of skepticism, an understanding of human nature, and a broad educational background from school or from reading.
For the classic, definitive portrayal of a real journalist and what newspaper work is really like, watch the 1958 movie “Teacher’s Pet” starring Clark Gable as a grizzled city editor who crosses swords with a journalism professor played by Doris Day. For an updated version, see 1994’s “The Paper,” with Michael Keaton as the editor of a New York tabloid who gets into a fistfight with the paper’s business manager (Glenn Close) when she tries to stop publication of an important news story.
My second reason has less to do with print newspapers per se than with why I subscribe to The New York Times when it’s been over 10 years since I lived in New York.
These days, we often hear about local newspapers being closed down: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the latest high-profile victim. The Web site Paper Cuts tracks newspaper closings in the United States. However, corporate consolidation and avarice killed most local newspapers in spirit long before it killed them in body. It starved them of resources and treated them as nothing more than investment vehicles, no different from hog futures or a cement company. In place of articles written by the papers’ own reporters (who’d been fired), their pages were filled with cheap, generic articles from the national newswires. In place of editors who were longtime local residents and knew their communities, we got overpaid hatchet-men from corporate headquarters. The New York Times is one of the few relatively credible newspapers left around. Even with all of its shortcomings, it seems to understand what a newspaper is supposed to be.
Once upon a time, newspapers were considered a public trust, not merely an investment out of which one squeezed the highest possible short-term profit. Newspaper owners were often local tycoons who wanted status more than they needed money. They accepted lower profits as a badge of honor for the service they provided to their communities. Sadly, that is no longer true.
My third reason is that it’s our duty in a civilized society to inform ourselves about events (political and otherwise) affecting that society. On television and radio news, twenty-second sound bites pass for “straight news” while screaming commentators repeat partisan talking points in the guise of analysis. Opinion sites such as The Huffington Post are valuable sources of information but don’t do straight news reporting. None of those sources is a substitute for the careful, detailed reporting and analysis that newspapers at their best can provide. I’m not saying that they always do provide it, but the desire and the capacity are there.
I’ve known a lot of newspaper reporters in my life. Despite the criticism they get for alleged bias, most of them are dedicated to accuracy — and even beyond that, they are dedicated to truth. When I was a reporter, I took pride in the fact that my news writing revealed nothing about my personal beliefs: it was all facts, facts, and carefully neutral analysis. If I wanted to express an opinion about the news, I wrote an opinion column, but the news itself was sacred. My attitude was not unusual. The owners of newspapers might no longer see themselves as holders of a public trust, but most of their reporters still do. I want to support newspapers as a vital social institution while they work out the kinks of publishing (and staying in business) on the Web.
My fourth reason is that I’m willing to pay for a relatively reliable, complete news source. As I noted earlier, The New York Times isn’t perfect. Its shortcomings were on display during the Bush-Cheney nightmare when it published administration propaganda (such as Judith Miller’s articles about the supposed Iraqi threat) and censored news stories (such as the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping, torture, and negligence or complicity in the 9/11 attacks) that would have exposed truths the administration wanted kept secret.
Imperfect as it is, however, The New York Times is still pretty good. When read with a skeptical eye (as Soviet citizens used to read Pravda and Izvestia) and supplemented by other news sources, it provides a great deal of valuable information.*
I believe that newspapers are mistaken to worry too much about all the “free content” available on the Internet. The reliability of that free content varies greatly. It takes research and analysis to separate the wheat from the chaff. A good newspaper does that job for the readers. It’s worth something. In fact, it’s worth a lot.
Whether it’s on paper or on the Web, thoughtful people are willing to pay for news that is relatively reliable and complete. Those people will always be a minority of the population, just as they were in the print era. Once newspapers shift to a paid Web subscription business model, their subscribers will be highly qualified prospects for Web advertising and the revenue stream it can provide. The same applies to the dwindling minority of us who still subscribe to print newspapers.
Newspapers don’t have to disappear. They simply have to evolve.
*The New York Times’s credibility would be improved by the departure of Executive Editor Bill Keller, who presided over the paper’s serial errors and acts of cowardice during the Bush-Cheney years. In 2004, for example, Keller chose to suppress an article from two of his reporters about the Bush-Cheney administration’s illegal wiretapping of American citizens. By doing so, he deprived American voters of vital information and probably changed the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. We don’t know what other stories Keller spiked or why he did it. Even NYT Public Editor Byron Calame said that Keller had “stonewalled” in response to requests that he explain why he had suppressed the wiretapping story. If the two censored reporters hadn’t written a book whose publication was imminent, Keller might still be sitting on the story. The New York Times finally printed the wiretapping story just before the book was published.
Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as copyright notice and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.