Daily newspapers are the Quasimodos of public discourse — imperfect outcasts in smudged clothes, big-hearted bell ringers heaved in the dust, whipped in the town plaza and missed when not heard.
Maybe they should survive just because they are so goofy. They search the horizon for new business models while really knowing no other way of living than to publish each day — still armed with 15th Century technology while dragged deeper into the digital revolution.
Newspaper people do not call their product a “daily miracle” for nothing.
Exhausted but awed, they lurch off to modest homes after big steel rollers have pressed ink, sweat and tears onto pulpy paper, after Rube Goldbergish machines, like roller coasters with clothes pins, race still damp editions through hangar-like buildings to gas-guzzling trucks outside — and all of this after the production and circulation people have demanded laggardly newsroom types give them 12 hours lead time to get the “news” to driveways, doorsteps and easily pilfered racks, standing bare-chested on the corner.
There’s always plenty of kicking and screaming in the process: Editors and reporters are as opinionated as anyone else but mostly set out to do a fair job; newsroom managers wonder how to keep their engines running on rationed fuel; wealthy owners employ bleeding-hearts to report on what’s wrong with the world. They are ragtag outfits full of civic purpose and fear of lagging sales.
When they’re really in trouble, these Quasimodos of current events ring the bell of constitutional protection. The daily reality is — as anyone would know if they’d been near newsroom phones on a day when a comic strip, the crossword or Dear Abby was dropped — accountability is just a typo away. This is to say nothing of missing sports scores or an offensive editorial cartoon.
I am not here to defend errors, bad judgments or political bents, but there usually are at least two sides to any Quasimodo beating story. Newspaper readers, it seems, often are as imperfect as the people who put the papers out.
Old-time editors used to bark, “Whadda they want for a nickel” and “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” Professionally, and in the movies, things have gotten a lot more high-minded: “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” and “The Post” have replaced “The Front Page” and “Ace in the Hole.”
But it’s still a business where headlines trigger shots from the hip and last paragraphs are a reporter’s vanity. The rules are largely unwritten — kind of a sacred trust among those inside — but readers who took a journalism course in college, or had a bad cup of coffee in the morning, take it upon themselves daily to call in and explain how things should be done.
Come on, do we really not know this? Do rich people buy newspapers to exert influence or just to enjoy the unruly people they hire to put them together?
These days, the political biases of newspaper hierarchies are at least equaled by reader demands for conformity with their own views. But even moldering and bruised, newspapers are still the best apples in the bin.
Young reporters are warned, “You can’t eat a byline,” but they do. They stay up at night, reveling in the heroics of public-minded but thankless life, going out for stories again the next day, heedless of commercial interests and their employer’s editorial bent, telling those college-educated journalism experts, who call to complain every day, who’s lying, cheating and stealing them blind.
Angry readers cancel their subscriptions, then wonder what the city council did last night.
Editor’s note: The writer subscribes online to the Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican, the New York Times, the Washington Post, High Country News and maybe the Navajo Times. He reads The Santa Fe Reporter and the Sandoval Signpost for free. He reads other news sources on the internet and sent money to NMPpolitics.net when it brought Laura Paskus on board to report on the environment. He does this to get the news. He never reads the comics and seldom reads editorials because of their mostly predictable points of view. Most weeks, he remains a fan of The New Yorker, although he often forgets to read it after switching his subscription to online to help save trees. The only thing he reads cover to cover is Wooden Boat.