What Would Liebling Say Today?

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A. J. Liebling was the principal writer of the New Yorker's "Wayward Press" column from 1945 until his death in 1963. These columns were widely regarded as the ne plus ultra of journalism about journalism because of their combination of reporting, insight, and wit. Liebling's appraisals could be scathing, but always derived from his respect for what could be, but rarely were, the standards of the trade he practiced. Delving lately into a collection of Liebling's work called The Press (purchased in the used books section of Amazon), it is striking how much of his bleak assessment of the performance of newspapers--which are mostly what he wrote about--has echoes and even relevance for today's accumulation of problems in the news business.

The crisis in Liebling's time was consolidation. Writing in the early 1960s, he cites Editor and Publisher as saying that, of 1,461 American cities with daily newspapers, all but sixty-one were one-ownership towns, creating monopolies where competition once flourished. Liebling contended that the remaining newspapers tended to cut back on news and staff, no longer feeling the need to make much effort to attract readers. His favored targets were skinflint conservative Republican owners whose only goal was to squeeze profit from their rags. "The function of the press in society is to inform," Liebling wrote, "but its role is to make money. The monopoly publisher's reaction on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her in a horse race."

Once assured of a dominant position in their supine market, these moguls shoved syndicated features and filler into the papers instead of original reporting, Liebling asserted. "The publisher's mass preoccupation--their pocketbooks" opened one piece, "often keeps them from covering news at all. When I worked on the World-Telegram, 1931-35, the paper although posing as a metropolitan daily, never sent reporters out of town any further than Flemington, N.J. 50 miles away, and that was for a unique occasion, the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. A wave of economy followed this unwonted expenditure--reporters using the subway were required to bring in signed notes from the platform guards before submitting a voucher requesting reimbursement of their nickels."

So, in Liebling's view, newspapers were already in decline during what from today's gloomy perspective should have been a golden age, at least for the owners. At a time when newspaper readership was at its peak, Liebling found consistent and ample reason to describe their weaknesses. "What disquiets me more than the possibility that newspapers qua newspapers will disappear is the increasing uniformity of the survivors as they wait to coalesce," he wrote at the end of the great New York newspaper printers strike of 1963, which led over the next few years to the closing of the Herald Tribune, Journal-American, Daily Mirror, and World-Telegram. In fact, those labor battles and the resulting shakeout of weaker papers opened a period that, in retrospect, was truly the heyday of many metropolitan dailies. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, and others provided comprehensive local and national coverage and dispatched correspondents around the world.

Liebling did not live to see that era, but it is now clear that from the 1960s until only a few years ago, America's newspapers probably did as good or maybe even a better job serving the public interest than at any other time in our history. But their very success and the huge revenues they generated were misleading and probably were instrumental in the crisis now under way. As Lieblings's vivid portraits of his time demonstrated, newspapers were enterprises conditioned to struggle. The notion that they could return profits of 20 percent or more while also maintaining newsroom staffs of hundreds of increasingly well-paid and well-educated journalists was an aberration from the raffish, penny-wise culture of the past.

Perhaps these newspapers were doing so well--along the way also taming the unions--that their proprietors (or in the case of publicly traded companies, the managers) missed the signals of what was happening as readership declined over the past decade and classified advertising began to migrate to the Internet. As journalism became respectable in the latter part of the twentieth century, there was still a great deal to complain about: perceived bias, anonymous sources, and accuracy, among others things. Yet considering the scale of today's cutbacks in newspaper coverage of local, state, and foreign news, in particular, and the scramble to figure out how to make money from digital technologies, this is an especially turbulent age. Liebling would have a wonderful time. For all of his criticism, the last line of The Press gives a hint of what his attitude would be: "I am an incorrigible optimist about newspapers," he wrote. Newspapers these days could definitely use one.


Photo credit: Flickr user Bright Meadow

 

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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