The lessons this place has to teach have a hungry audience in journalism today. The rapacious demand for more and more profits, for the news to serve not the public but investors, has had a disastrous effect on American newspapers. Six-paper cities have become one-paper cities, afternoon dailies have moved into morning, big papers become smaller and smaller, bargaining that if they aren’t giving people what they need, giving them less should fix that problem.
More dangerous, national political reporting turns presidential elections into unholy hybrids of beauty contests and game shows, and wars into soundtracked soap operas. The voyeurism of the local news tells us to care about one family’s tragedy and ignore an entire city’s devastation; more people can tell me, no doubt, who the latest missing white woman is, than can tell me how many people were killed during Hurricane Katrina. Veterans of the business shrug their shoulders at all of it: What are you going to do?
In the face of these problems, our influential academics are fretting over the influence of the Internet, making Google a catch-all fall guy for the failings of advertising, marketing and news executives so bad at stewarding resources they make Soviet Russia look like a bastion of fiscal restraint. No amount of blaming teenagers showing their boobies on MySpace makes up for the fact that few newspapers have done a decent job of reminding the public why they’re necessary. If you’re not making your paper widely known and easily available and filled with vital content, you hardly need Craigslist’s help to screw it up.