There is still some life in many newspapers, but recent results have encouraged a basic question: What would it be like if newspapers left the scene? Would our information needs be met by NPR? Blogs?
The common belief is that we are entering uncharted territories in journalism with the rise of social media, blogs, online video, search, tagging, etc. But history majors look to the past.
Social critic Louis Menand, in the Jan. 5 edition of The New Yorker (which doesn’t put its articles online), says we’ve seen new media emerge out of the ashes of newspapers before. Specifically, The Village Voice, the most successful alternative weekly ever, which really hit its stride during successive pressman strikes in 1962 and 1965. “By 1967, The Voice had single-day circulation higher than the circulations of 95 percent of American big city dailies,” he points out.
While The Voice was known in part for being cofounded by author Norman Mailer, its editorial was actually a hodgepodge of (barely paid or free) free-lance contributions, tied together by classifieds. “The Voice was the blogosphere — whose motto might be ‘Every man his own Norman Mailer’ — and Craigslist fifty years before their time,” says Menand.
Despite The Voice’s later embrace of alternative lifestyles, it wasn’t especially ideological. In fact, at its founding, it echoed the sensibility of Mailer and others and ignored gay culture — this, the weekly paper for Greenwich Village. “The Voice was not on the cutting edge of anything except journalism. That, of course, is why it survived,” says Menand.
Menand also notes that the motto of pioneering editor Clay Felker at The Voice (and later magazines such as New York and Esquire) was that “print must be for the educated and affluent elite.” This was in comparison with mass media TV, of course.
Given the fragmentation of the Web, and the wealth of alternative information sources, there isn’t the same kind of opportunity for a Voice to rise up from the death of newspapers. But to Menand, that isn’t the point.
The opportunity was from organic journalism, and the ability to build an audience around it. It is a different result than preached by the corporate types that run the Newseum, for instance, as a mausoleum for the triumphs of the 20th-century newspaper industry.