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As Long as We Remember...

April 6, 2007

The Still-Wayward Press

Roy Meachum

Where's A. J. Liebling? His New Yorker columns on "The Wayward Press" reads now like a celebration of things past; especially since real estate mogul and dealmaker Sam Zell has taken over the mantle worn for years by "Bertie" McCormick.

The keenest eye focused on newspapers sought eternal peace 44 years back, just as his beloved print journalism was passing into its twilight. John F. Kennedy's assassination, only the month before, had enabled television news to take off. Powered by Walter Cronkite and increasingly large budgets, print's days were in the past.

In Mr. Liebling's day, publishers like "Colonel" McCormick, vied with movie stars grabbing ink. An era can be defined by tossing out names like The Hearst Empire's William Randolph Hearst, The Los Angeles Times' Otis Chandler and Arthur Hays Sulzberger of The New York Times. In the local area, the Baltimore Sun's Abell family, the Kauffman-Noyes clan at the Washington (Evening) Star and the Grahams of The Washington Post belonged to this elite.

In that competition, a mere real estate mogul, such as Mr. Zell, would have been left gasping at the starter blocks. Very remarkable in that era was the way publishers put aside their differences to handle common problems. While at least a slim majority preached liberalism, they were all conservative when dealing with unions.

But what happened, in the face of the rise of television and the loss of advertising revenue, was the way that the press barons sought public financing. The death of great papers had much to do with the owners' eagerness to peddle stock, although in the case of The New York Times and The Washington Post, control remained firmly in families' hands.

Public pressure, nevertheless, came through stock markets; always there was the need to show better profit pictures, to keep the outside funding flowing. Newsroom cuts became routine, although no company could match the spectacle at The Los Angeles Times. Editors came and went with the regularity of figures on a dome clock. The same observation applies to publishers, now no longer in charge and converted to hired guns.

In the event, individual ownership faded rapidly into corporate rule, typified by the Tribune Corporation that owned the dominating papers in numerous markets. The New York Times dipped in, by acquiring the Boston Globe, once a bastion of New England independence.

Less important, by far, but significant in its own way was the drain of creative talent to the electronic media and that was taking place before the cable explosion. Remembering CNN's early days, I still find it difficult to assimilate the huge budgets commanded by the new networks that resemble the old only in the sense they are seen in many markets.

The newspapers that have survived and even flourished have concentrated on regional events; offering news the electronic media fail to touch. The only community papers that remain robustly healthy are those who can count on outside help.

In Frederick, today's News-Post benefits very much from the sale of the cable systems for some $750 million; this provides enough cushioning to keep the paper from outside ownership. In the local case, the decision has been made to eschew local coverage in favor of electronic access through computers. There is even a sort of "television" news.

The "techie" approach to a market this size remains highly experimental, subject to great success or resounding failure. But that's left to the next generation of owners to judge, while local readers either switch to major market papers or decline all in favor of the literally overwhelming cable news sources.

In his prime, the 20th century's foremost observer of the American press wrote fearlessly of men who lived on the principle of instilling fear into their critics. A. J. Liebling refused to be cowed.

The 21st century's media have grown into a true Tower of Babel: too many news voices, speaking for too many views and crowding so excessively on each other that it's virtually impossible to find any consensus that might be the truth.

Far from the beacon that Thomas Jefferson counted on to lead the way to democracy, today's press, in Mr. Liebling's term, has become so wayward itself that it cannot be relied upon for anything, especially basic information.

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