Listen up! Journalism needs to start believing in itself once again
‘Digital platforms are worthless without content. They’re shiny sacks with bells and whistles, but without content, they’re empty sacks’
Auspicious my debut at Time was not.
In 1981, I started working in the Washington bureau of the newsmagazine famously mocked by The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs for its inverted Homeric style. “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” Gibbs satirized. “Where it all will end, knows God!”
I thought my first Monday morning story conference would be my last. The bureau chief wanted to see how we felt about the prospect of a Time cover on salt. He called on me first.
“My mom puts salt on everything,” I replied. “She’s not worried about it.”
A veteran reporter across the table looked at me scornfully. “He’s talking about Salt II,” she sneered, referring to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the US and the Soviets.
I cringed. But to my astonishment, the bureau chief corrected my tormentor. “No,” he said, “I’m talking about table salt.”
That’s the kind of place Time was. One week, the Ayatollah Khomeini was the villain on the cover, the next week, Salt the Killer. One week, you worked on Qaddafi hit squads; the next, cats. (I got a byline on the cat cover for a penetrating interview with a cat psychologist named Fox who did Swedish massages on Burmese felines.)
“Father Time,” Henry Luce, wanted everything in his magazine to be either “epic” or “titillating trivialities.” Luce and his fellow Yalies started Time in 1923 with a breezy tone, snazzy adjectives and the promise to keep “busy men” informed, concisely.
Headlines about Time Warner’s breakup with Time Inc. sent me into a reverie about my salad days in Time’s glory days. In “The American Century,” as Luce dubbed it, nabbing the cover of Time was the most coveted honor in our culture. Now the humbled magazine, bleeding ad revenue like the rest of print media, is facing a future, as The New York Post’sKeith Kelly put it, “untethered from the Time Warner mother ship,” which prefers to focus on its two better-performing children, TV and film.
After my stint in Washington, Time moved me to the New York headquarters, with its Mad Men aura of whisky, cigarettes, four-hour sodden lunches and illicit liaisons. (Partake of which, unfortunately, I did not.) The researchers, a largely female staff, were referred to as “the vestal virgins.” To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a woman’s writing about national affairs was like a dog’s walking on its hind legs; that we could do it at all was seen by some older editors as surprising.
On Friday nights, when the magazine was going to bed, there were sumptuous platters of roast beef rolled in, and bars in editors’ offices.
Sometimes you’d go in a senior writer’s office as the drinking wore on and just see two feet sticking out from under the desk, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the house falls on the witch.
It was a plummy time when a top editor could arrive in Paris and think nothing of sending a staffer from Paris to London to fetch a necktie he had left in his hotel room, or of sending a minion flying off to fetch a box of his favorite cigars, or of having articles about the Nicaraguan contras flown to his Martha’s Vineyard house so he could make sure the political tilt was right.
Mere writers got to expense dial-a-cabs out to the Hamptons after working late Fridays, at $150 a pop; and people rarely shared, snaking out to Sag Harbor in a pampered convoy.
Even then, it struck me that newsmagazines were doomed, with the strange bifurcation of reporters who were not allowed to write and writers who were not allowed to report. I reckoned the genre had a few years at most. When Time named the computer the Machine of the Year for 1982, we were still writing on typewriters.
A Time cover does not mean the same thing in a world of pure media entropy. Now, if something hits, it hits; if it doesn’t, there’s another thing coming along in a minute, somewhere else.
Journalism, spooked by rumors of its own obsolescence, has stopped believing in itself. Groans of doom alternate with panicked happy talk.
Before this sends yet another shudder through the media establishment, remember this: It may be a funeral for the Henry Luce era, but it’s not a funeral for us. We can’t wear black crepe every time someone prefers to read on a tablet; we can’t be like the auto industry and the GoP, who got accustomed to waiting around for it to be 1965 again.
It will be good if this moment provokes a reckoning about what really needs to be preserved in the culture, about what is valuable.
Many content providers and managers — formerly known as reporters and editors — have stopped believing in their own value and necessity. But the gatekeepers in the content class have to understand the world in which we’re living and wield their judgment.
Digital platforms are worthless without content. They’re shiny sacks with bells and whistles, but without content, they’re empty sacks.
It is not about pixels versus print. It is not about how you’re reading. It is about what you’re reading.
New York Times