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Stop the Presses

November 21, 2011

Time to toast not roast old-time journalists


“We hate to see The Evening Sun go down.”  A rival newspaper mourned the passing of the once influential New York Sun with this headline on January 4, 1950. In those days, the death of a newspaper—conservative or liberal, tabloid or broadsheet—was considered a disaster.   

Today as more and more newspapers bite the dust few rival papers are left to bemoan their passing. And the public reaction to the demise of this once powerful medium has been downright insensitive.  

“Old-school newspapers seem like aging silent screen stars…” Maureen Dowd wrote in a New York Times column. The Newseum in Washington, DC—which honors the nation’s daily newspapers–should be called the “Newsoleum,” Stephen Colbert proclaimed on his comedy show.

In the interest of old school journalists who, like me, bruise easily, I’ve been looking for bright spots in this picture and have found enough to believe (rationalize?) that we’re sounding the death knell for newspapers prematurely.

Fact one: There are still 40,000 newspaper journalists working full time in this country, according to a recent article in the American Journalism Review.

Fact two:  Many old people, even those fluent in the language of the web, still read newspapers (where available) regularly.

Fact three: It’s difficult to potty train your puppy on a Kindle or an I-pad.

I’m also encouraged by the way younger journalists are carrying on the traditions set by my generation of reporters. These include a taste for the grape, the healthy use of cynicism and aggressiveness when covering a story, the conviction that a messy desk is the sign of creativity, the willingness to work for ridiculously low pay in order to see one’s byline in print or in cyberspace, and a work ethic which demands that you cover the story whether you’re sick, your grandmother just died or you cannot get a baby sitter.

A vintage–and true—anecdote, which illustrates this tradition, involves the cub reporter who was covering the race riots in Montgomery, Ala., in the late 1950s, for United Press International.  After 48 non-stop hours on the job he pleaded for relief, moaning, “I’ve only got two hands.” When Grant Dillman, then head of UPI’sWashingtonoffice, heard of this, he fired back: “Fire the crippled bastard.”

Unhappily the old-time pace setters like Dillman get little recognition these days.   Recently, I asked a young friend, a promising journalist, if he recognized the following names: Merriman Smith, Robert Donovan, Johnny Apple, Ernie Pyle, Martha Gelhorn, Hildy Johnson or Walter Cronkite. My young friend only knew Cronkite—as a TV anchorman. He didn’t know that Cronkite, who started out at the University of Texas on The Daily Texan, had first been an award-winning, front-line print reporter who covered D-Day from a B-17 and went on bombing missions over Germany. .

Merriman Smith, author of several books and one of the 20th century’s most colorful White House reporters, was the first to close presidential press conferences by shouting, “Thank you, Mr. President.”  

Bob Donovan, the New York Herald Tribune’s Washington bureau chief (and one of my former bosses), wrote the best-selling book, “PT-109,” about how John F. Kennedy saved his crew in World War II when a Jap destroyer sliced his boat in two.

Johnny Apple, the well-rounded New York Times reporter, was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from art, music, politics and foreign policy to the proper zinfandel to serve with what food in what country.

Ernie Pyle, one ofAmerica’s most beloved war correspondents, wrote for and about the men with whom he marched in combat in World War II. His stories became the benchmark for war reporters everywhere.

Martha Gelhorn, one of the first women war correspondents, took incredible chances to get a story, lying in the mud alongside soldiers inSpain, posing as a stretcher bearer during the D-Day landings atNormandyand flying with British pilots on bombing raids overGermany.

And Hildy Johnson?  Well, that was a trick question. Hildy was the hotshot reporter in the 1950s play, The Front Page, who described a newspaperman as “a cross between a bootlegger and a whore.”

 Clearly today’s young journalists are producing their own icons and setting their own new precedents. I’m impressed with their versatility and technical skills as they tackle all echelons of the industry—shooting and editing videos and photos, writing for television and radio and reporting news and gossip on their blogs and web sites and the constantly evolving social networks.

Admittedly, I wonder whether all those stories that pop up on the social networks every nanosecond have been properly fact-checked, documented and verified. But I’m grateful for the way these networks can connect and inform people around the world in times of crises.

Despite the phenomenal growth of this digital media and the new journalism it has spawned, I still believe we old timers can keep alive a boutique market for a few well-written newspapers that we can hold in our hands, scribble on, underline, clip stories from and read leisurely over our morning coffee or in the bathroom where so much creative thinking is done. 

Meanwhile, it’s time to toast the muckraking hard-core journalists who set the standards that many young journalists follow today, i.e. objectivity, irreverence, solid reporting, and a genuine devotion to the public good and the perfect martini.

Gwen Gibson

From → humor

  1. Hurray for you Gwen. A great piece, and I do take comfort from the fact there are still many papers standing, that 40,000-some journalists still work at them (yes, for ridiculous pay; my son is among them) and that I still see people on the subway — even young people — reading them. As for the bird cage, let’s not go there…

  2. Beautifully written, Gwen, as is everything you tackle. I miss working with you as we did so many times to get one of your terrific pieces into our magazine, The Good Life, which folded after publishing the January 2009 edition. Keep up the good work!

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