Peter Patau Photo>This newspaper that spent the last few months being torn apart by the ice and snow of a hard winter on Lake Mendota seems emblematic of what is happening to the practice of print journalism as we know it -- everywhere, not just in Madison, where we're losing a dead tree daily in less than a month. The industry has been pounded by forces beyond its control, and the dead trees are dying a second death.
Here in Madison The Capital Times will stop publishing as a print daily newspaper on April 26, continuing as an internet newspaper with two print supplements per week that will appear in the Wisconsin State Journal. It already seems to be a kind of ghost newspaper, since a lot of familiar names are gone. Columnist Doug Moe jumped ship for the State Journal. Others have taken buyouts and left. There's more freelance and wire service copy filling the gap.
Although the announcement of the daily's planned reincarnation on the internet was filled with optimistic predictions of a proud future, it feels as if The Capital Times, an outspoken progressive voice in Madison for the better part of a century, is dying before our eyes. It had seemed inevitable, simply a matter of time, for a long time, but I already miss it and can't shake a sharp sense of loss. Part of it is personal. I've been a subscriber for years and years -- which probably says as much about me and my demographics as the paper itself.
But it's more than a personal loss. For years now, Madison has been unique for a city our size in having two competitive daily newspapers, a fact that added greatly to our local political discourse. But the way Madisonians get their news has been changing for a long time. News is moving to the internet, where a variety of media share a stage that had once belonged almost exclusively to print journalists. And news has become a more interactive process as Web 2.0 applications make possible a far richer reader interaction than was ever possible with an occasional letter to the editor of a newspaper.
Eric Alterman writes about the future of newspapers in this week's New Yorker. He notes how quickly the landscape is changing, and how it realigns the way we process news. Among other things, the somewhat artificial American conventions of "objective journalism" are likely be replaced by different kinds of practices and expectations.
The young have been occupying this territory for some time, but for some of us it will be a very different world than the one we grew up in.
And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.I've been getting most of my news online for years, and my head tells me the change is probably a good thing, but my heart will still yearn for the paper that will never come.