R.I.P. Legacy Newspapers

Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, weeps for the sad state of the printed newspaper. In his latest column, Pitts decries how award-winning newspapers are struggling to maintain circulation.

The example he cites is the Times-Picayune in New Orleans — which in May announced it would lay off staff and cease daily print publication. On onlythree days a week from now on will its diminishing subscribers see a bundle of newsprint and glossy advertising on the stoop. The horror!

For this calamity Pitts blames: (1) the public for not being wise enough to recognize the value of legacy-newspaper staff giving you a printed product every day, and (2) the terrible business acumen of the “English majors” who run newspapers and gave away their product online and now cannot cobble together a sustainable business plan.

Yet the only villains Pitts calls out by name are media-revolutionary Matt Drudge and conservative-heroine Sarah Palin. That is proof enough that Pitts and similarly positioned legacy-MSM dinosaurs are still, at this late date, oblivious to the fact that the death of the daily newspaper comes largely at their own hands.

There is a part of me that empathizes with Pitts’ lament. I was an English major who plied my trade in print journalism for 16 years — and a full 20 years, if working for my college tabloid with a 20,000 daily circulation counts. I covered sports, music, politics, crime, schools, sewers, weather, charming small-town festivals, county commissioners, city councilmen, state politicians, governors and Congress. The pinnacle of my print career was covering George W. Bush’s re-election campaign and the first year of his second term for The Washington Times. It was always a thrill to realize my byline was there — physically recorded, on the front page — for thousands of subscribers. My mother cut them out and put them in scrap books.

Over those years, I split my time almost equally between the hard news side of journalism, as well as the opinion side — writing “voice of the newspaper” editorials, and my own column. I edited a few opinion pages for newspapers in my day, and often enjoyed picking out Pitts’ columns from the wire and publishing them because he’s an interesting liberal writer. But Pitts’ latest piece is even more myopic than the “English majors” he half-faults for the demise of the MSM. The full fault is staring Pitts in the face, but he is utterly blind to it.

Pitts wrote this, after his eulogy for the Times-Picayune:

All of which lends a certain pungency to something Sarah Palin said recently at a conference of conservative activists in Las Vegas.

“Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be,” she said.

According to Politico, she was quoting Matt Drudge. Ordinarily, you would dismiss it as just another silly thing Sarah Palin said. There is no shortage of those.

But these are hardly ordinary times for journalism. So forgive me if I am disinclined to let it go.

Good grief. That Pitts believes the only people qualified to “take on the powers that be” are “professional” journalists such as him is the problem he just cannot see. The reason why citizen journalists must take on the powers that be — especially the current powers, or whenever there are liberal Democrats in power — is because the likes of him refuse to do so.

To take but one contemporary example: Fast and Furious. It was the right-leaning “new media” online — the Daily Caller, National Review, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, Michelle Malkin, Hot Air, Ace of Spades, Stacy McCain, and countless bloggers (not to mention talk radio and Fox News) — that did real reporting on this story for almost two years.

It’s not every day — or even every few decades — that a House committee votes to hold a member of a president’s cabinet in contempt of Congress. So when that happened to Attorney General Eric Holder last week, the MSM was forced to scramble and explain to their viewers, listeners, and readers why this extraordinary event even occurred.

If you consumed only the information dished out by the MSM — which Pitts insists is the only proper arbiter of “the news” — you’d have been completely in the dark last week about the entire scandal, which had been reported in great detail by blogs and “new media” from the get-go.

Pitts continues outlining the “sins” of new media:

Palin’s sin — and she is hardly alone in this — is to consider professional reporters easily replaceable by so-called citizen journalists like Drudge. Granted, bloggers occasionally — and only occasionally — originate news. Still, I can’t envision Matt Drudge standing his ground in a flooded city to report and inform.

Putting aside the second cheap shot at Palin in a column that has nothing to do with her, Pitts’ identification of Drudge as a “citizen journalist” only further emphasizes how he doesn’t get what is killing the MSM. Drudge is not a “citizen journalist.” He hasn’t written anything in ages, as far as I can tell. Drudge is a citizen editor — and an extremely influential one. He made his bones in 1998 by reporting the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal when Newsweek spiked it. Drudge had the guts to trust his sources at the magazine and report the truth. And that is no small thing.

By doing so, Drudge broke the MSM hold on “the news” forever. There’s no successful reporter in the Washington/New York orbit who doesn’t check out his news aggregate daily, and several times a day. It is a must. When I was in the White House Press Corps, I’d chuckle to myself when I saw The Drudge Report home page on the laptop screens of reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post in the media room on the road. I’m sure they hated going there, but they had no choice. Drudge changed the game, and was driving the news cycle better than they were. Can’t get scooped again!

Back to Pitts. Still oblivious to the liberal bias that results in blindness to important stories, he focuses on the local angle — the cub reporter who will report on a meeting of the school board or sewer commission … because he’s paid by a legacy newspaper to do so. Pitts also throws in a huzzah for reporters at major MSM outlets who parachute in to report on tragedies, such as Hurricane Katrina and Darfur.

Will “citizen reporters” replace that function? Will they have the resources, the credibility, the knowledge, the training or even the desire to do so? No.

And not all the arias sung by Palin and like-minded people to new media and the do-it-yourself “journalism” of ideological crank cases will change that. The function served by daily newspaper journalism is critical to the very maintenance of democracy. It’s time we recognized that.

I plead guilty to tooting my own profession’s horn. Somebody needs to.

A third slam on Palin! And an emphasis by Pitts that bloggers are, by and large, “crank cases” who cannot be taken seriously (while the MSM, that should be trusted, ignored the Fast and Furious scandal). And without “daily newspaper journalism,” the “very maintenance of democracy” is in peril!

OK. Let’s pop the “professional journalism” balloon right now: “Reporting” is not hard. Journalism is not a profession for which one must earn credentials. It is a trade. Reporting is a skill anyone with common sense, curiosity, and an ability to communicate can learn and hone. It involves merely a desire to pursue the truth — verifiable facts — and having the ability to report them clearly to the public. And if you’re good at it and reliable, you’ll gain readers and links and — gasp! — move a story to a state of critical mass that even the MSM has to report, as in Fast and Furious.

I, too, lament the decline and eventual death of the daily print newspaper — but not for the same reasons Pitts cannot see. Even though I worked for print newspapers, I haven’t had a bundled newspaper tossed on my stoop for almost a decade — and, even then, it was for the crossword. But that’s akin to being nostalgic about 8-track tapes, vinyl records, or Betamax. Like many Americans, I no longer get the paper delivered because by the time I would see the morning paper it is utterly irrelevant. I’ve read the new latest news all night online and I’ll be reading up-to-the-minute news on my iPhone on the train to work.

Let’s put this plainly: Legacy newspapers could have retained their audience and influence if they displayed a healthy skepticism of authority and pursued the real truth. They didn’t. Instead, they chose to stay on the path they’ve trod for decades — presenting a preferred liberal narrative as “the truth.” The digital revolution provided the information Americans needed to liberate themselves from the MSM’s arrogant, biased, false, and monopolistic hold on “the truth.” And the legacy outlets are now, to Pitts’ lament, suffering in the harsh environment of a liberated media market.

Consumers of media are smarter than Pitts and other liberals suppose. Palin’s remarks were areflection of reality, not an attempt to create a narrative. The success of Drudge and the new media was and is honest and hard-earned, not assumed by the authority of a masthead. The American people can figure out what’s “the news” without the previous gatekeepers of that information — and they increasingly find the old guard wanting.

Leonard Pitts and the rest of the MSM weep over a self-inflicted wound. Pardon me for shaking my head while handing them a tissue.

Crossposted at Somewhat Reasonable.