I’m beginning to feel like Sally Field.
Remember the 1985 Academy Awards, when she was stunned by the idea of being accepted? “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me!” she gushed. “Right now! You like me!”
I could give the same speech today.
I am, you see, employed in an industry that is dealing with, well … let’s be diplomatic and call them “challenges.” Truth is, though, the newspaper business is “challenged” in the same sense the Titanic was “leaky.”
Wherever I travel, I make a point of picking up the local paper. Almost always, it is like holding a cancer patient, some stricken friend you haven’t seen in a while. You are shocked by how thin and flimsy it has become, how little substance remains. Budgets are shrinking, ad revenue is declining, some cities no longer have seven-day-a-week home delivery; some don’t even have seven-day-a-week newspapers.
And now, all of a sudden: “You like me! Right now! You like me!”
Which is to say that lately, I’ve been hearing from readers who say they’ve found renewed appreciation for newspapers as we trudge through the Valley of the Shadow of Trump. They see them as the last line of defense between 2017 and “1984.”
Initially, I didn’t attach much importance to such comments; I thought it was just a few isolated folks. But I’ve since learned that other journalists are hearing the same thing. Amazingly, a number of papers are reporting that subscriptions are up since the November election. The Washington Post has even hung out the Help Wanted sign.
Apparently, Donald Trump is good for business. Who knew?
I am of multiple minds about this. In the first place, as already noted, there’s the Sally Field response. Close behind that there is a wish that some of this love had been in evidence 10 years ago when I began losing friends and colleagues to the unemployment line.
And close behind both is a realization that, while an uptick in subscriptions is certainly a good thing, it is unlikely to be a panacea for what ails newspapers. The changes wrought to the business model by the technological revolution of the past quarter-century are too profound. The internet has hollowed this business out like a cantaloupe.
We are, as a nation, poorer for that.
In the clangorous acrimony of our hyper-partisan politics, in the forward rush to master the new tricks and the next technology, we somehow lost appreciation for the values this old technology — we’re talking about things that happened yesterday printed on dead trees, for criminy sake! — brought, quite literally, to the table.
When I say that, I don’t intend to signal some romantic rumination about lingering over breakfast with the sports page, or the tactile joys of ink and paper, though those things are not unimportant. But I’m talking about information, the kind of in-depth briefing for which television lacks the time and Facebook, the authority. I’m talking about knowledge that equips a citizen to hold his or her government to account. I’m talking about the fact that facts matter.
This is what some people seem to have belatedly remembered. It’s what seems to be prodding their return.
I’m more than glad to have them back, but pardon me if I regard all this with a jaundiced eye. The newspaper, we used to say, is the watchdog of power. Well, it seems to me that some of us are only just now — i.e., since November — discovering the paradox of watchdogs: You can get along fine without them. You really don’t need one.
Right up until you do.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald.