What We Talk About When We Talk About Newspapers

This is an old post that I never hit “publish” on, about the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos. In the name of actually starting to write things on this blog again, I am not going to update it to reflect Bezos’ visit to the newsroom or the Post’s coverage of today’s shooting at Navy Yard and the decision to drop the paywall for the coverage. For those people who are not journalism geeks, I apologize in advance for the references that will be confusing.

In college we talked about minutia and dreams. About em dashes and Oxford commas and deadlines. About race and gender and labor unions. About the mission of a Journalist to give the world part of what it wants to hear and part of what it ought to. About saving the industry, about rejection letters, about getting picked up in the college section of the New York Times. About newspaper politics and newspaper sex. About Woodward and Bernstein and Pulitzers and student-reporter-sized exposes.

In college, we were sentimental about newspapers without even realizing it. We were madly in love and mad.

And slowly we grew up.

Slowly. We went to work at newspapers. We stood in newsrooms as they celebrated Pulitzers, but more likely stood in newsrooms as the paper got bought and sold, as reporters got laid off. We joined unions. We read with awe about Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and wrote inscriptions to each other about whether we’d give a ball to edit the Washington Post. We hatched plans to save Newsweek, and then stopped reading it altogether, and then it stopped publishing. We went to grad school and foreign countries. We moved across the country and got laid off. We got health insurance and new contracts. We gaped open mouthed at the super stars who considered leaving journalism and then we started doing it ourselves, separating ourselves into the people who really loved the job and the people who loved the idea of the job. We went to law school, to jobs in social media, to jobs in government telling ourselves that the industry changed and these things weren’t so unforgivable anymore, not like they were when we graduated, when so many of us were actually going into journalism. Not like they were when everyone knew that path to the Chicago Tribune was from the Peoria Journal Star to the Chicago Sun Times to the Chicago Tribune. And then, if you moved to Washington with the Tribune (were you lucky enough to follow Obama), you could go from the Chicago Tribune to the Washington Post, and then you’d have Made It. No one can tell you how to Make It anymore but sometimes they tell us to write for free.

“Two more years of this and I am going to do something that really makes a difference, ” one of my college coeditors tells me. Five years ago that would have been blasphemy. Now, I am also leaving. Or at least taking a break.

This is what newspapers talk about when they talk about newspapers, or specifically when they talk about the Washington Post:

They talk “politics, powersuits, and Woodward and Bernstein”. They talk about the “ossified world of newspaper publishing” and about the nostalgia of working for the Grahams. They talk about a “landmark in journalism,” about a microphone in Washington. They talk about Watergate.

They don’t really talk about the people, about the city that isn’t the beltway, about the metro newspaper, about theories of change or disruption. About Chandra Levy, or even “Top Secret Nation.” They don’t talk about questions of identity: a national newspaper versus a local newspaper. About whether all politics are really local, and whether it matters. They don’t talk about covering race or not covering it.

When newspapers talk about the newspaper industry, most of the stories are left untold.

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2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Newspapers

  1. Pingback: Arthur Sulzberger Is a Newspaperman. He Should Have Known Better. | Leora Falk

  2. Pingback: Do More With Less, Or The Strange Arrogance of Covering The Pulitzers | Leora Falk

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