Epstein on the fate of newspapers

Joseph Epstein, the cultural critic who used to edit The American Scholar, asks “Are Newspapers Doomed?” in Commentary. It’s a great piece; full of reminiscences of growing up in Chicago when it was a five-newspaper town, and livened by quotes from the likes of H.L Mencken, Walter Benjamin, Dan Rather and Jack Germond. Lots of credible stats about young people’s information habits and avoidance of the mainstream news media, the growth of blogs and feeds, etc.

Of the zillions of recent essays out there on the fate of newsprint, I haven’t read one as thoughtful and engaging, which respects the cultural significance of newspapers throughout recent history — and what remains of it today.

It’s worth reading all of it, but if you want to cut to the chase, here’s what Epstein forecasts, and what he wishes for:

(If) I had to prophesy, my guess would be that newspapers will hobble along, getting ever more desperate and ever more vulgar. More of them will attempt the complicated mental acrobatic of further dumbing down while straining to keep up, relentlessly exerting themselves to sustain the mighty cataract of inessential information that threatens to drown us all. Those of us who grew up with newspapers will continue to read them, with ever less trust and interest, while younger readers, soon enough grown into middle age, will ignore them.

My own preference would be for a few serious newspapers to take the high road: to smarten up instead of dumbing down, to honor the principles of integrity and impartiality in their coverage, and to become institutions that even those who disagreed with them would have to respect for the reasoned cogency of their editorial positions. I imagine such papers directed by editors who could choose for me—as neither the Internet nor I on my own can do—the serious issues, questions, and problems of the day and, with the aid of intelligence born of concern, give each the emphasis it deserves.

In all likelihood a newspaper taking this route would go under; but at least it would do so in a cloud of glory, guns blazing. And at least its loss would be a genuine subtraction. About our newspapers as they now stand, little more can be said in their favor than that they do not require batteries to operate, you can swat flies with them, and they can still be used to wrap fish.

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