Choices or, Why I Still Read the Newspaper

by MATT STOKES | JULY 17, 2011

Basically, my wife was immature. I’d be at home in the bath, and she’d come in and sink my boats.
-Woody Allen

If you’ve been reading the new ESPN site, you know that just about every story starts the same way: The writer reflects on a small moment from his or her childhood or adolescence, finds a way to connect that small moment to Something Bigger, how the small moment and the Something Bigger reverberated throughout the writer’s life, and then how that childhood ideal ties into something currently happening in sports or pop culture. It’s the number-one criticism angry bloggers have about Grantland: It’s self-indulgence run amok. Writers find no subject in the world more interesting than themselves, and when they’re given creative license to write about whatever they want, they write about themselves, and their childhoods, and why those childhoods were significant and resonant and poignant and how we could all really learn a lot about ourselves, if we only just… listened…

It’s an old axiom of journalism that a writer should not make the story about himself; the writer’s purpose is to serve the story, not the other way around. David Grann of The New Yorker is my favorite nonfiction writer because of how effortlessly he tells the stories of others and makes them utterly fascinating, but never inserts himself into the story. Grann’s own presence in the story is always minimal; you know he’s there only by his choice of subjects. That if he chose to write about a subject—art dealing, for example—you know it’s going to be worthwhile because otherwise, why would he have chosen it?

But this is becoming increasingly rare in media. The internet has made everyone a star. It’s given any asshole with an internet connection a blog and, therefore, a voice. (Like me!) It’s a loud world. We’re drowning in stimuli. I know I know, I bitch about this all the time here, lament how I just want everything to slow the f down, how I find the paradox of choice so depressing that all I can think to do is take a nap, that the only way anyone can notice anything anymore is if it’s screaming at us. Which probably explains the abundance of first-person narratives where they seemingly don’t belong—”Hey, look at me talk about ME!!”—but people like them, for whatever reason. I know I do, and I know I do it all the time on this blog.

So, it would seem that if I were to make an argument on behalf of the newspaper—that dinosaur, that obsolete relic from a bygone era—I should start off by harkening back to personal memories of football Sunday mornings with my dad and my brother, anxiously awaiting the 12 o’clock kickoff, sifting through the Sports section while sitting on our back patio… swapping the college and NFL sections of The Times-Picayune (And before the economy tanked, the Picayune had a terrific Sunday sports page.)… giddy as noon ticked closer… coffee… donuts… I’d explain how every time I open a newspaper today I’m trying to recapture that feeling, to recreate an indelible moment lost forever in time.

And then I’d describe it in the same terms many newspaper devotees describe it: There’s something indescribably delightful about having the actual physical product in front of you, all laid out. The smell of newsprint paper, the sound of crinkling, the slight ink smears on your fingers, the local columnist who’s 25 years past his prime who you still read every day just to piss yourself off. That you can’t read your news on a computer screen, because… well, something just ain’t right.

But I don’t care about any of that. I love newspapers because I believe wholeheartedly—foolishly, perhaps—in the integrity and importance of journalism, and I believe newspapers are the last bastion of an era before people realized it’s not good business sense to own a news organization if you can’t turn it into a cash cow. This is huge. Some people say agendas have ruined the media. No way. Biases are human nature, they’ve always existed; it is, hopefully, the goal of a journalist to aspire to objectivity while acknowledging that he or she can never actually achieve that goal. But no, what’s ruined media is user-driven content. The internet has given us such an abundance of information that we get intimidated, so we choose only to follow the media outlets that reinforce what we’re already thinking and what we want to hear, or that give us the most immediately gratifying information, or that take the news and then yell at us what we should think about it. But we’re also being constantly monitored on the internet, every one of our clicks accounted for. And so your local newspaper knows and can back up with data that a slide show of the cutest puppies in town will get 100 times more clicks than a story about, say, the city’s budget. More hits, of course, means more money. So which are they going to go for?

Smiley Anders of the Baton Rouge Advocate is something else. Here’s a snippet from his most recent column:
Annabelle Armstrong says, “My granddaughter Molly Armstrong asked her father Kenny, “What is in tobacco that makes it so addictive?”
“He said, ‘Nicotine.’
“They must put it in potato chips, too,’ she said, munching away.”
And that’s it! That’s all there is to that story!

And so I worry that “hard news” is on its way out as a result. That’s scary. Newspapers have no idea how to reconcile with the internet. How do we stay relevant when you can get your news instantaneously online rather than having to wait for tomorrow morning? How do we stay relevant when nobody even cares about news anymore, because there’s so much else out there to read and watch and keep us entertained? Well, they stay relevant with user-generated content that’s produced cheaply and gets lots of traffic. If the only reward in chasing “important” stories—which are almost always expensive, time-consuming, and exhaustive—is a plaque awarded to you by other newspapers for excellence in reporting, and the cheap-as-fuck puppy slide show is pleasing the advertisers, which is the smart business decision? It is, after all, the news business.

If the pursuit of hard news gets marginalized, we’re not going to get stories like what happened this week to News of the World. NOTW, Britain’s top-selling newspaper, shut down because of an unbelievable phone-tapping scandal that not a single American gives a shit about because we’ve never heard of News of the World. But it’s the UK equivalent of USA Today, so it’s a pretty huge deal. It’s come out that NOTW routinely broke the law in the pursuit of breaking news (Their “news” usually amounted to gossip about celebrities and soccer stars.), and they were taken down by, get this, another newspaper. The Guardian, which is sort of like Britain’s New York Times, conducted an expensive two-year investigation of NOTW’s phone tapping, and finally exerted such pressure that they were forced to close in shame and humiliation. The fallout gets worse every day and is massive in scope, and contains all the elements of a classic potboiler—unscrupulous journalists, crooked cops, corrupt and indifferent government officials, scandalous celebrities, innocent civilian victims. And it was all made possible by All the President’s Men-style reporting. It was an amazing throwback moment for newspapers—old-school versus new-school, long-form writing versus tabloid, hard news versus gossip. Somehow the old won out.

So that’s why we still need newspapers. Not because we like the way it feels to have the entire paper laid out on a kitchen table in front of us, and not because our eyes hurt when we stare at computer screens for too long. It’s because, as the media splinters under the weight of the internet, we’re going to need strong media outlets with the resources and the drive to go after the stories that really matter, even if the only reward in the end is knowing they did their job.