What’s News?

The news is old as humankind. It moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to report.

We feed on it, stoke the fires of rumor, inhale the smoke of conjecture. We are a species who thrive on stories. We respond to drama. We want heroes.

For the last few centuries the primary vector of news was paper, but since the advent of the electronic age the medium has undergone a series of rapid changes which for better or for worse have changed, it seems irrevocably, the way in which news is shared.

I am saddened by the diminished power of newspapers in our time. The once great papers of the past are fighting for their economic lives in a world increasingly swayed by the glib sophistry of ranting opinionists on television, radio and internet. Few media outlets have the budget or the time for thoughtful, in-depth analysis anymore. Everyone seems in a race to jump to conclusions, which are refashioned daily, sometimes hourly, depending on the pace of events.

Such flexibility has its virtues. But on the whole, the credibility of the entire news media has been sorely damaged by continuing compromise with economic and social reality. We are no longer a nation of readers, if we ever truly were. A nation of viewers is far more easily misled it seems.

When I was growing up in Northern Virginia I was spoiled by The Washington Post, a great international paper which has somehow managed to survive, so far. To maintain correspondents around the world, on the ground, doing actual reporting, is a luxury few modern papers can afford. Most crib their news from the wire services. They reheat the stories with a slab of opinion, serve them with a side of “who cares, it’s not happening here,” and get on with the important news of what happened at the local school board meeting last night. Because, the truth is, for most of us, the news that matters most is the news that hits home. In our schools, on our streets, in our communities.

I learned this when I  worked at a small local newspaper in Warrenton, Virginia, where I had the good fortune to see how much work it takes to provide news coverage that was honestly fair and balanced (as opposed to the much-touted and completely bogus “fair and balanced” product so widely dispersed these days). The Fauquier Citizen was an independent newspaper in a county where the leading news source was firmly in the pocket, and lining the pockets, of the old money, who wanted the news, and the county, to stay just the way it had always been, since before the Civil War.

The rivalry was intense between the newspapers, and competition lent zest to our quiet little rural life. But, eventually, after some fifteen years, The Citizen packed up its tents and closed its doors, following the route of hundreds of small independent papers around the nation in the last twenty years.

It saddens me to think there will come a day when no news will be printed on paper. And not just because I will miss all the little things about newspapers, although I will – the sounds alone – the slap of the daily hitting the porch, the rustle of pages over coffee, the snap and crackle of folded sections.

Yet a newspaper is so much more than an information delivery system. A newspaper organization is an ecosystem. An endangered one.

I just read a wonderful book called The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman about one such marvelously complex and perilously fragile newspaper organization. Rachman, a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, also worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and his familiarity with the drama, the dark humor and the human foibles that make newspaper work so maddening and yet so addictive lends authority to the novel. Covering a hundred year period in a series of interelated stories, the novel builds a brilliant portrait of the intricate organism that is a newspaper. The writing is crisp, evocative, moving and even funny at times.

But, ultimately it’s an obituary, mourning and celebrating the extraordinary life of a newspaper. We who have known them must count ourselves lucky.