Newspaper people spend a lot of time thinking about their business and their places in it. Recently, at least at the exalted, national level, the thinking has been painful. In the old days, we gave our business a lot of thought, but we were mostly self-congratulatory, so thinking about the business was so much fun that it actually took the place of doing business.
It turns out that all that wallowing self-reflection was unhealthy. Oblivious to the oncoming Internet tsunami, we awarded ourselves generous grants of dispensation for past slip-ups, and put all that behind us. It was just another day on the beach. Taking one's own measure, at least by newspaper types, also leads to vast expressions of high-mindedness and greater purpose, which, in the day-to-day run of the work, have little to do with anything, especially these days.
Some journalist observer/participants do take stock in honest terms, and their reviews can be refreshing, if a little flattening. These are the folks who repeatedly remind us that change is good for the soul, even the industry, and that it isn't what we do - namely, find things out and then tell you about it - but how we do it that needs re-imagining, to use a hip term you'll all find familiar.
For instance, Russell Baker, the longtime New York Times OpEd Page humorist, wrote, about columns like this one, "It takes great self-confidence to write a newspaper column. Some might say it takes arrogance. Be that as it may, my willingness to pronounce on a great many matters of which I have little or no knowledge is one of my prime qualifications for this trade." I wish I had thought of that, and then kept it to myself. Baker may have gone a bit far, especially about the little or no knowledge thing.
The comment that follows, written by a onetime United Press International Washington bureau manager, seems exaggerated of course, but - well, you judge for yourself.
"A newspaper is not the place to go to see people actually earning a living, though journalists like to pretend they never stop sweating over a hot typewriter. It is much more like a brothel - short, rushed bouts of really enjoyable activity interspersed with long lazy stretches of gossip, boasting, flirtation, drinking, telephoning, strolling about the corridors sitting on the corner of desks, planning to start everything tomorrow.
"Each of the inmates has a little specialty to please the customers. The highest paid ones perform only by appointment; the poorest take on anybody. The editors are like madams - soothing, flattering, disciplining their naughty, temperamental staff, but rarely obliged to satisfy the clients personally between the printed sheets."
Maybe, but the business about the editors is unsubstantiated in my experience. Anyhow, the new media and the bloggers have ended all that.
H. L. Mencken formed no tentative opinions. "The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer," he wrote in 1941.
Mencken could be harsh, but at least he knew enough to confront pretension and that "newspaper of record" hogwash we hear so much about. Mencken today would have been a blogger, maybe the most celebrated one, and his web site would be saturated with advertising, filched from newspapers, all of whom would be trying to sign him up as their blogger. Along with his advertising contracts, naturally.
Mencken also said, "A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier." I certainly can't go along with him there, but the wider world certainly does in this new age.
Here's a Mencken that rings true. "... I welcomed the letters that came in, and, in fact, edited them. I was in charge of the letter column, and always let anyone in who denounced me violently get in - because I believe that people like to read abuse."
Absolutely right, but the letter writers are only a fraction of a newspaper's readership. This time of year The Times circulates 17,000 copies, and we get 20 to 30 letters a week. It is comforting to think, as I do, that the other 16,970 readers, plus the 2.5 times that number who read the paper according to pass-along statistical figuring, are content with what we've published. If any of this vast readership horde had a beef, wouldn't they, like the 20 or 30 who weekly put pen to paper, communicate their dissatisfactions? Of course they would.
To be denounced as often as he was, Mencken must certainly have irritated a great many readers. His view was that readers, like citizens in a democracy, know what they want and "deserve to get it good and hard," which is no way to run a newspaper, or is it?
Today, the voters are out, but early polls suggest that all the old assumptions (including many I've embraced) about the news business may no longer apply.