[This article originally appeared in the Winter 1978 issue of Nieman Reports.] …Having been introduced to newspaper work on a thriving paper that received its United States and world reports by Morse code—when the telegraphers actually used a Prince Albert tobacco tin for sound amplification as they typed copy on their Underwood No. Fives—I have never ceased to marvel at more advanced means of copy transmission.
Although teleprinters have supplanted telegraphers and the wonderful sound of Morse is heard no more, the tap-tap-tap of typewriters persisted in city rooms across the country until a year or so ago. Now those machines are being phased out in favor of electronic gizmos, by means of which reporters and deskmen create and shape stories silently—and without paper. Apart from the hazards to eyesight inherent in these beasts, they strike me as portending the demise of classy newspaper writing.
I cannot conceive how it is possible to compose an intricate news or news-feature story without thought or reflection upon its structure and wording. There are the inevitable false starts, leads that improve with reworking, paragraphs that brighten with polishing. Traditionally, a story of any degree of complexity and class was the result of an almost mystical interaction between the writer, his typewriter, and a pile of copypaper. Now this harmony is on the way out.
Electronic writing accounts, I believe, for the decline of newspaper prose so evident in the country’s newspapers. More and more stories are being written with one sentence per paragraph. Words are employed repetitiously, mindless adjectives are tossed like radishes garnishing a salad in which the lettuce is all iceberg. The anguish and pleasure is being taken out of writing.
Writing on a piece of paper in a typewriter somehow lends an illusion of permanence to one’s prose. Writing noiselessly on a screen, on the other hand, reinforces the temporality of one’s endeavors. Push the wrong button, God help you, and the words disappear forever.
In a city room, there are limits to the benefits of technology—assuming that reporters, deskmen and editors are eager to produce stories both informative and literate.…
Where is it written that editors alone decide what is worth covering? Where is it written that city hall or the White House are the best beats in town? Where is it written that reporters are creatures of their editors? Despite the prevalence of college degrees, reporters often fail to make the most of events around them; they are too often lazy and superficial; they are unwilling to be outsiders, to be tough, to work for their readers. In this respect not much has changed in 50 years. Yes, conditions of work are better, wages are higher, and professionalism as measured by formal education has increased—but good gut reporting remains a scarce commodity.…
The effects of absentee ownership have blighted newspaper people increasingly over the last 50 years. The Hearst chain gang system that dominated the ’20’s and ’30’s has been considerably modified; more and more papers are coming under the ownership of fewer and fewer corporations. Within the Hearst system (like that of Scripps Howard and others) each paper was a likeness, with minor modifications, of the flagship paper. In modern times, however, that practice has all but been abandoned in favor of local coloration and absentee bookkeeping.
In order to show a good profit, this has led to a noticeable tendency to do things on the cheap. The profit, not the product, is too often the owner’s measure of his newspaper. When a paper in Florida has its owners in New York, the pages tend to run lean in news matter and heavy in the ads. With very few exceptions, such newspapers are not likely to be provocative in their coverage or in their editorial policies.
Growing with the shift in the ownership pattern of daily papers has been the suburban press, a weakling 50 years ago. The well-known flight of middle class whites from cities has engendered boom times for suburban papers. Increasingly, however, these are not independent, but links in some corporate chain. Thus, the papers in suburban Chicago, for example, are owned by just a few companies, and the same is true for New York.
What is truly worrisome about the concentration of press ownership in relatively few corporations is that this situation tends to put a lock on meaningful press freedom. In the days of the founders, it was relatively simple and inexpensive to start and sustain a paper; now, however, it is difficult and costly. How much more difficult and expensive it will be to buck an entrenched corporation remains to be seen. Monopolies are never easy to budge, and I suspect that monopoly power, as exemplified in corporate control, does not bode well for press freedom.
If my views are more saturnine than roseate, it is because I would like to see the United States a land of feisty newspapers, written and edited by men and women of independent mind and skeptical spirit, to whom nothing is sacred except their responsibility to report their times forthrightly. After all, a reporter’s ultimate employer is not the publisher of the newspaper, but rather its readers; they should be served with holy zeal. By doing so, every reporter will uphold the First Amendment.
Mr. Whitman is a freelance book critic whose reviews appear in newspapers all over the United States. He wrote for The New York Times for 25 years.