One of the most vexed contemporary commercial controversies is the future of the newspaper. It is a technological, and in the United States, a socio-cultural question. It is clear enough that the traditional newspaper—based on the felling of trees and their conversion to newsprint, and the delivery of said newsprint to urban plants where immense high-speed presses create the physical commodity for vast distribution networks that deliver it throughout metropolitan areas and even whole countries—is passing. This mode of newspapering had an astonishing durability, surviving premature death notices with the arrival of the radio, television, and each subsequent phase of electronic media. Newspapers still survive, though unstably, on the old formula and still try to use the internet as a teaser to draw readers to their printed product, grinding out a little longer under the Sisyphean burden of immense presses and hideously expensive distribution networks. This heroic incumbency is gasping in its last days, at least in larger centers.
It may be that small newspapers in small centers will not be practical targets for direct internet assault, but their only assets, so dispersed from metropolitan sensibilities as to enable them to fly beneath the radar up to now, are local advertising, local correspondents, and local municipal and sporting events. If an effort to destroy the economics of the local newspaper were backed by modest local publicity and some discounting for the leading local advertisers, and provided that internet penetration was about 65 percent or better within the circulation area, then one correspondent for each 10,000 subscribers and a website to collect advertising revenue for the grocery store and other local retailers would be enough to succeed.
In metropolitan areas, internet penetration is already across that threshold, and media fragmentation is such that the existing newspapers are already in precarious condition, if not, as in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and a number of other large cities, already in bankruptcy protection. For decades, the metropolitan daily in the United States has suffered from the worst aspects of a declining industry and local monopoly. There is really no full-scale newspaper competition in any American city except in New York and Chicago, and they hardly count. Chicago is divided by broadsheet and tabloid monopolies, and, in New York, even though The New York Times is being attacked directly (by the Wall Street Journal) for the first time since the demise of the New York Herald-Tribune forty years ago, the tabloid New York Post and Daily News have largely divided the city between Manhattan and the outer boroughs. In a few cities, there are token competitions, such as The Washington Times which runs a conservative competitor to The Washington Post at the annual cost of $40 million to the Reverend Sun-Yung Moon, a cost of which he has
Even in these restrained circumstances, it is a very distressed industry. The Chicago Tribune was the most valuable newspaper property in the world for many decades. And although it led all newspapers in the world in advertising revenues from 1914 to at least the late 1960s, it is, with all the cornucopia of its other assets—the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Hartford and Fort Lauderdale newspapers, the WGN (World’s Greatest Newspaper) television and radio networks, the Chicago Cubs, the Tribune Tower, and extensive cable and internet assets—in Chapter 11 because of a loony and devil-take-the-hindmost leveraged buy-out. The mighty New York Times had to write off a one-billion-dollar investment in The Boston Globe, New England’s leading newspaper; it was for a time effectively on life support ($250 million in 14 percent yield notes) from the Mexican media supremo, and one of the wealthiest and least sentimental businessmen in the world, Carlos Slim. Rupert Murdoch, the great contrarian, has sounded the tocsin against the Times, but he has also acknowledged that most of the $5 billion his News Corporation shelled out for Dow Jones (the Wall Street Journal) was over-payment that has been written off against the company’s shareholders’ equity.
For decades, average American newspapers in almost all of the fifty metropolitan areas with a million or more people, except the very largest of them, have been mediocre products afraid to raise cover prices for fear of the impact on circulation and advertising. Where in the more fervent newspaper-reading culture of Britain, cover prices account for up to about 40 percent of revenue for even the highest quality broadsheet newspapers, in the United States that figure is rarely above 20 percent. Because almost all American publishers separated the editorial from commercial functions and made the editorial areas no-go zones, they basked in the commendations of journalists as “ideal owners” while the editors and their journalists followed their own noses steadily to the left, unnecessarily alienating many advertisers and large swaths of would-be subscribers. As there was no direct competition, most of the newspapers were also very uninteresting graphically and stylistically, employed none of the revenue-raising devices—whether high-end reporting or more populist lively photographs and headlines—and just plodded stolidly to their eventual, and largely unlamented, doom. They wore all the arrogance of monopolies and displayed the defeatism of those intimidated by television and newer developments. It was a sorry, demoralized, rather disoriented industry for a long time, especially after the passage of the greatest of the old publishers, such as Colonel McCormick, W. R. Hearst, Walter Annenberg, and Otis Chandler.
There is still a fiercely dedicated group of Samurai and Janissaries prepared to fight to the death for the old-school newspaper, much akin to the people who have rebelled against domed baseball stadiums and movie theaters without traditional popcorn. They are magnificent, but their strategy won’t work. There are, however, signs of renewed hope and strength for the newspaper: in the continuing strength of trademarks as beacons of established quality in a tenebrously thickening forest of proliferating media choice; and in the editorial function, which is becoming more important as choice and information flow overwhelm the average reader. The latest Apple applications are relatively friendly to direct newspaper transmission, and newspapers that have taken the trouble to try to maintain some active reader enthusiasm can now see fore-glimmerings of an unpromised land of refuge.
The most likely survival scenario for the more robust newspapers is intimately linked to technological innovation in home printers. There are those, in large numbers, who prefer to read from paper than a screen and also those for whom reading from paper is the only practical method of reading because of whatever else they may be doing or where they may be when trying to read. To reorient itself to the expiry of its old lifelines and to the accessible places from which a manageable future may beckon, newspapers will have to do two things: gather some exclusive attachments to writers with large followings of dedicated readers and build a loyal fortress of readers around their stable of writers and the good will in the brand. They will have to hire dozens of rewrite people to build an electronic newspaper, constantly updated, and connected to many other media files and features, and run it like a sophisticated version of cable news. At the same time, designer versions of the newspaper should be emailed to subscribers, to be printed out at pre-agreed times or as particular bulletins come in, in a format that more closely resembles a recognizable newspaper than a contemporary home printer can manage, so that it awaits the pleasure of the subscriber with that individual’s known news, comment, and entertainment preferences favored in the composition of the personalized edition.
In this scenario, a subscriber preoccupied with financial news, the fortunes of the Republican Party, New York City social gossip, and the progress of the Purdue University basketball team, as well as flattering photographs of glamorous news-making women, could be addressed appropriately. A photograph of the wife of the president of France, Mme. Bruni-Sarkozy, exiting her official car and revealing an expanse of well-toned thigh, could lead a front section focusing on important business developments; polls in upcoming elections that figure prominently in Republican hopes; an interview with the coach of the Purdue basketball team (if necessary one conducted by telephone from the newsroom, if the number of interested subscribers justified it); and a list, with pictures and asides, of people seen in the boxes of the Metropolitan Opera House the night before. The balance of the news would be deployed in the order, as far as it was known, of the subscriber’s preferences, and all items would have connections to other sites, YouTube and so forth, as well as into historic archives. And thus, the electronic newspaper, which would be printed out at home, and also available at newsstands in a generic edition, would be a printed product for those who wanted it, but most of the printing cost would be borne directly by the subscriber.
The strength of the newspaper title, and of the group of reserved writers, would make this revamped newspaper a very strong competitor in the field of information media. But bringing the present newspaper companies along from their antediluvian presses and hundreds of delivery trucks and largely unionized and Luddite work forces will not be like falling off a log. Only the earliest-awakening and strongest of newspaper franchises will survive this last and possibly most severe evolutionary stage. And like the strongest salmon swimming upstream to secure the future of the species, those that do so will reassume a very influential and relatively secure position in the continuing media. The traditional paper edition will be there for those who cling to it; a much-strengthened version of twenty-four-hour news coverage will be there for those who reach for that.
The commercial strength of such a metamorphosis is less clear, but it will have to rely on some combination of subscription-only content, sales of the physical product, and revenue from targeted advertising. I am skeptical that most of the current efforts to wring payment for online newspapers will achieve much. The Wall Street Journal, with two million daily sales to a heavily corporate and all upscale (AB1) readership, and a very good product, may make headway. But Murdoch’s bold move to persuade online surfers to pay for the contents of the New York (Com)Post and the almost equally vulgar offerings of the London Sunday Times, will, I suspect, provide some fairly amusing revenue reenactments of Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
This route to survival is full of danger and of promise. In this age of erstwhile tycoons running for cover and pretending to be subway-riding philanthropists and art patrons and collectors, who are really rather ambivalent about capitalism—where only the most swashbuckling maintain capitalist traditions—the executive class has been emasculated by assembly-line retribution from the political class over the great burning philosophical question of whether greed or government cynicism and incompetence was chiefly responsible for the economic crisis. In this fetid atmosphere, pure Darwinism will decide which newspaper titles and enterprises survive into the new world of technologically enhanced choice and access.
The socio-cultural question that bedevils the future of newspapers is rooted in the decline of the prestige and credibility of the media. It is obvious and notorious that the traditional national media of the United States has fragmented in market share and lost ground heavily to newer forms of media opinion-leading. Special bugbears of the traditional liberal national media are the talkshow and television commentators of the Right, such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Tucker Carlson, Bill O’Reilly, and many others. The great network newscasts of the 1950s to 1970s, with John Cameron Swayze, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, E. P. Morgan, and Howard K. Smith, have become human interest divertissements about social work and jolly and progressive good things—that, or family medical alerts. The old group may have oversold osmotic education they recieved by wearing their trench coats through the great squares of Western Europe in the off-loads from the baggage train of General Eisenhower’s armies, but they at least tried to address real issues facing the country in the approximate order of their importance. Prior to Vietnam, there was no great ideological chasm that was easily detectable or a cause of widespread public disaffection.
My considered and carefully researched opinion is that the national media—in particular the major newspapers led by The Washington Post and The New York Times—that turned against official Vietnam policy, led the lynch mob against Richard Nixon, published the Pentagon Papers, and, then, after the destruction of the Nixon presidency and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, showered themselves with awards and claimed the salvation of constitutional democracy and the shining hour of a free and fearless investigative press, suffered a mortal wound in the nation’s trust of them. It is a national intuition, and relatively few members of the public would volunteer this explanation for the rise of conservative opinion media and the erosion of the credibility of the old pundits and anchormen. (The exception, perhaps, and appropriately, is the glamorous and trusted Diane Sawyer, who loyally accompanied Richard Nixon from the White House to San Clemente, and is far more prescient than the current crop of vapidly talking pretty-faced heads of both sexes.)
But I believe that millions of Americans, if walked fairly through the relevant sequence of questions, would confirm that the national media’s treatment of Vietnam and Watergate, far from being the triumph the liberal national media has endlessly celebrated, was a self-inflicted assault from which the country will only fully recover when the national media confess at least the possibility of their mistakes and injustices and comprehensively repent what they have never ceased to claim as their greatest moral victory and national service. The objective, relevant, and now undisputed facts, succinctly stated, are laid out below.
The Kennedy White House claimed a masterly and scientific form of calibrated crisis-solving that was proved in the Cuba Missile showdown of 1962, when the United States forced the ussr to back down and withdraw missiles from Cuba. In fact, the CIA was unaware, as was, naturally, the president and his entourage, that the warheads for the Soviet missiles were already in Cuba, along with 40,000 Soviet soldiers, two whole divisions of the Red Army. This ignorance was a greater intelligence fiasco than the inability to detect 140,000 Red Chinese guerrillas across the Yalu in North Korea a decade before. None of the Cuba invasion scenarios would easily have subdued such a force and there would have been a full deliverable nuclear missile capability in Cuba within thirty-six hours—the mighty photo-op of the naval blockade was too late to interdict that. The missiles and the Russian soldiers were withdrawn, but so were U.S. missiles deployed under nato agreements in Greece and Turkey, contrary to the wishes of both those governments and to the consternation of Charles de Gaulle and other European leaders, who saw the whole affair not as a triumph for the United States but as a demonstration of questionable American reliability as a defender of Western Europe. It was a modest strategic setback, as the only missiles that were not in place three years after the crisis that had been in place before it were nato missiles in two member countries. Only the inspired intuition of President Kennedy, not any of the self-important advice of his staff or cabinet, prevented a disaster, even if only a very bloody American nose, with consequent conventional wars in Europe, most likely in Berlin.
Lyndon Johnson inherited the propagators of the McNamara et al. scientific crisis-management fable and followed their advice to plunge into Vietnam with over 500,000 draftees, on the very slender constitutional pretext of defending U.S. interests after the fuzzy Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in which some torpedoes were apparently fired at American warships but no damage was done. None of them, including LBJ, saw fit to follow the strenuous advice of the nation’s senior and most successful army theater commanders since Grant, Lee, and Sherman: Five-star Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both men advised Kennedy and Johnson not to commit ground forces again to continental Asia, but said that if the effort were made to save a non-Communist regime in Saigon, it could only be done by severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos; closing the flow of military supplies into Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and Haiphong; using overwhelming air power to prevent North Vietnam from sustaining the war; and training the South Vietnamese to defeat the insurgents with close air support and massive assistance and materiel support. Both advised against the Laos Neutrality Agreement of 1962, which effectively legitimized and immunized the transfer of that country into a mighty conduit of soldiers, munitions, and other sinews of war into the South. Nixon called it “Communism on the installment plan” for Indochina.
In October 1966, LBJ had effectively thrown in the towel by offering to withdraw all foreign forces, including North Vietnamese forces, from the South. If Ho had accepted this, he could have waited six months and then reinvaded the South and the United States would have done nothing to prevent his seizure of Saigon and the whole of the South. The fact that he did not demonstrated that, with the support of Beijing and Moscow, he was going to try to inflict military defeat directly on the United States. To his death in 1969, he never offered the slightest encouragement to the Americans to leave the war, even the barest face-saving window-dressing.
Nixon inherited a divided country, and an unsuccessful war, with 200 to 400 American conscripts dying every week and the national media counting out the returning body bags. He steadily withdrew American forces, eliminated the Cambodian sanctuaries, armed and trained the South Vietnamese, opened relations with China, negotiated the greatest arms control agreement in history with the ussr, and persuaded both powers to urge Hanoi to make a peace that would acknowledge the continued indefinite existence of the Saigon regime, and the inability of the Communist powers to defeat the United States itself. In the great North Vietnamese/Vietcong offensive of April 1972, between Nixon’s historic visits to China and Russia, the South Vietnamese won the ground war with heavy U.S. air, but no U.S. ground, assistance. Nixon took the occasion to revive massive bombing of the North for the first time since LBJ professed to find a peace possibility (and which was really a bare-faced effort to salvage the 1968 presidential election for his vice president, Hubert Humphrey). Nixon ordered 1,000 strikes a day on the North and 1,200 a day while he was in Russia to leave no doubt of his seriousness, and the North eventually yielded to the urgings of Mao and Brezhnev, as well as to their own inability to endure the punishment throughout Indochina, including from their own skies. The American public was quiescent, as American casualties had declined by over 90 percent, and the war finally appeared to be progressing well.
The tawdry Watergate affair was dressed up as an assault on the Constitution and Nixon handled it with astounding and uncharacteristic ineptitude. Nixon had known nothing of the Watergate break-in. The testimony of his former counsel, which under normal rules of evidence should have been inadmissible and was almost certainly mendacious, and the recordings of his own conversations (also questionably admissible under normal rules of evidence) climaxed in the “Smoking Gun.” This was Nixon’s approval of the request of two aides to ask the director and deputy director of the CIA if they would ask the FBI to lay off investigating Watergate because the intruders were Cubans and they could lead the investigators to CIA anti-Castro activities. The two men, Richard Helms and Vernon Walters, said they would follow a direct order of the president but would not otherwise intervene, and Nixon declined to lift a finger or utter a word to advance the ill-conceived idea. (The FBI wasn’t leading the investigation anyway.) This is not sufficient grounds seriously to embarrass a president, much less impeach, let alone remove, him.
The only legally worrisome aspect of Watergate for Nixon is the possibility that he approved, especially in the case of Howard Hunt, financial assistance to Watergate defendants in exchange for altered testimony. But this is not clear, and there is no reason to believe that in a calm and impartial atmosphere with adequate due process—all out of the question in the perfervid atmosphere created by Nixon’s partisan opponents and the presidenticidal frenzy of the almost unanimous national media—that he could have been convicted of anything of the kind. The whole episode took place in the murky realm of the unsettled national security prerogatives of the President of the United States. While Nixon was being persecuted almost to death and the executive branch of the U.S. government was being emasculated and crucified, all military assistance was cut off to South Vietnam, contrary to the implicit provisions of the peace treaty that Nixon had submitted to the Senate (although he did not have to do so) and which had been ratified without opposition.
South Vietnam struggled on unaided for two years, as the North steadily encroached. Nixon’s 1972 formula of massive air interdiction was rendered impossible by the Democratic congressional majorities, now in anti-Johnson, even anti-Humphrey, hands, which were determined to produce a bone-crushing defeat in the war their party had entered and which Richard Nixon had brought within sight of success. Nixon was hounded from office in August 1974; Saigon fell in April 1975. The debacle, which has been celebrated by its authors as the deliverance of America from evil, was complete.
This is essentially what happened in those terrible crises, but it is not the version of events, not even remotely, that was sold to a traumatized public by the media. These disservices must cease to be a badge of jubilation, and will require some atonement, for America to be comfortable with its press. The resulting damage to the institution of the presidency, and to the prestige and credibility of the United States in the world, not to mention to the millions of people murdered by the Communists in Vietnam and Cambodia and hundreds of thousands more who died trying to escape them, has not yet been entirely repaired, despite Ronald Reagan’s stunning and almost bloodless victory in the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the transformation of China into a state capitalist regime.
As I mentioned before, the average American citizen who is reasonably interested in public policy matters would not recite all these events but would probably nod sadly as they were recited and express serious concerns about the performance of the media—especially the written press and network news—in the Vietnam and Watergate disasters. This self-destruction of credibility, compounded by self-righteous preening and narcissistic claims to sanctimony, have had an impact on the ability of the newspaper to survive morally, just as it has been imperiled technologically. A consensus should be formed for—to borrow de Gaulle’s phrase from Algeria, another tragic and horribly wrenching national crisis—a “peace of the brave.”
Almost all factions, including successive presidents and most of the media, must be acknowledged to have been trying to do their best for the country. They all tried and they all made mistakes, the consequences were grave and tragic, and all must work to heal the wounds. The statesmen will study and learn the lessons of the period from 1962 to 1975, and the national media will cease their claim to a near monopoly of virtue. Richard Nixon was a brave and talented, but not infallible, president, as were John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald R. Ford. The anti-media right will accept that their opponents are human, and the temperature will settle. Lions must lie down with lions. The political climate will become more salubrious, and the most grievous wounds American public life has suffered since the Civil War will be allowed and encouraged, to heal.
The malaise of American newspapers has been assumed to be entirely technological, but it was not a very vigorous industry in the United States even before the full onslaught of the internet, because it was a frightened and beleaguered group of urban monopolies, producing mediocre products and looking warily over its shoulder for the next assault from the electronic and cyberworlds. But the industry leaders were also vaguely aware of the erosion of their social and political influence, if not of the reasons for it. The great American hunger for Richard Nixon to apologize, so evident in the David Frost interviews, was not really because the nation longed to forgive Nixon (though many did), but because it longed to believe that it had not been misled by the media and had not treated Nixon unjustly. Nixon never apologized and went to his honored grave having successfully defended his position that he had committed no crimes and that his opponents had assaulted the presidency and had the blood of Indochina on their hands. What persists is an unease, a mistrust; all the Pulitzer Prizes and self-serving retrospectives will not banish that powerful and peremptory conscientious concern. Eventually, repression will give way to acknowledgment, with respect and a trace of sadness, if not contrition. And then, finally, what President Ford called “our long national nightmare” will be over, and the newspaper industry will be whole again, morally, as well as technologically. The newspapers that make the cut and survive will then be a flourishing industry and will again, as in olden times, pour vital vivifying stimulants into the bloodstream of American public life.