The Golden Age of Journalism? Your Newspaper, Your Choice
By Tom Engelhardt
It was 1949. My mother — known in the gossip columns of that era as “New York’s girl caricaturist” — was freelancing theatrical sketches to a number of New York’s newspapers and magazines, including the Brooklyn Eagle. That paper, then more than a century old, had just a few years of life left in it. From 1846 to 1848, its editor had been the poet Walt Whitman. In later years, my mother used to enjoy telling a story about the Eagle editor she dealt with who, on learning that I was being sent to Walt Whitman kindergarten, responded in the classically gruff newspaper manner memorialized in movies like His Girl Friday: “Are they still naming things after that old bastard?”
In my childhood, New York City was, you might say, papered with newspapers. The Daily News, the Daily Mirror, the Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal… there were perhaps nine or 10 significant ones on newsstands every day and, though that might bring to mind some golden age of journalism, it’s worth remembering that a number of them were already amalgams. The Journal-American, for instance, had once been the Evening Journal and the American, just as the World-Telegram & Sun had been a threesome, the World, the Evening Telegram, and the Sun. In my own household, we got the New York Times (disappointingly comic-strip-less), the New York Post (then a liberal, not a right-wing, rag that ran Pogo and Herblock’s political cartoons) and sometimes the Journal-American (Believe It or Not and The Phantom).
Then there were always the magazines: in our house, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Look, the New Yorker — my mother worked for some of them, too — and who knows what else in a roiling mass of print. It was a paper universe all the way to the horizon, though change and competition were in the air. After all, the screen (the TV screen, that is) was entering the American home like gangbusters. Mine arrived in 1953 when the Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings, which — something new under the sun — were to be televised live by ABC.
Still, at least in my hometown, it seemed distinctly like a golden age of print news, if not of journalism. Some might reserve that label for the shake-up, breakdown era of the 1960s, that moment when the New Journalism arose, an alternative press burst onto the scene, and for a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the old journalism put its mind to uncovering massacres, revealing the worst of American war, reporting on Washington-style scandal, and taking down a president. In the meantime, magazines like Esquire and Harper’s came to specialize in the sort of chip-on-the-shoulder, stylish voicey-ness that would, one day, become the hallmark of the online world and the age of the Internet. (I still remember the thrill of first reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” on the world of custom cars. It put the vrrrooom into writing in a dazzling way.)
However, it took the arrival of the twenty-first century to turn the journalistic world of the 1950s upside down and point it toward the trash heap of history. I’m talking about the years that shrank the screen, and put it first on your desk, then in your hand, next in your pocket, and one day soon on your eyeglasses, made it the way you connected with everyone on Earth and they — whether as friends, enemies, the curious, voyeurs, corporate sellers and buyers, or the NSA — with you. Only then did it became apparent that, throughout the print era, all those years of paper running off presses and newsboys and newsstands, from Walt Whitman to Woodward and Bernstein, the newspaper had been misnamed.
Journalism’s amour propre had overridden a clear-eyed assessment of what exactly the paper really was. Only then would it be fully apparent that it always should have been called the “adpaper.” When the corporation and the “Mad Men” who worked for it spied the Internet and saw how conveniently it gathered audiences and what you could learn about their lives, preferences, and most intimate buying habits, the ways you could slice and dice demographics and sidle up to potential customers just behind the ever-present screen, the ad began to flee print for the online world. It was then, of course, that papers (as well as magazines) — left with overworked, ever-smaller staffs, evaporating funding, and the ad-less news — began to shudder, shrink, and in some cases collapse (as they might not have done if the news had been what fled).
New York still has four dailies (Murdoch’s Post, the Daily News, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal). However, in recent years, many two-paper towns like Denver and Seattle morphed into far shakier one-paper towns as papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer passed out of existence (or into only digital existence). Meanwhile, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press went over to a three-day-a-week home delivery print edition, and the Times Picayune of New Orleans went down to a three-day-a-week schedule (before returning as a four-day Picayune and a three-day-a-week tabloid in 2013). The Christian Science Monitor stopped publishing a weekday paper altogether. And so it went. In those years, newspaper advertising took a terrible hit, circulation declined, sometimes precipitously, and bankruptcies were the order of the day.