It isn’t just about the paper. It isn’t even about the individuals who, after decades of loyal work at the highest levels, now find themselves unwelcome in the newsrooms they ran for so many years.
It’s about the death of a proven process that brought us news we never would have known about otherwise. About getting answers to questions we didn’t know to ask. About weeding out the trivial, the self-serving, and the unverifiable.
For years, news naturally separated itself into various cycles that were rooted in physical realities. The sun goes down, and the newsmakers go home. The daily newspaper deadline comes and goes. We all know more or less when these things occur, and we plan around them. Newspapers evolved a very effective system of evaluating what needed to be covered on a given day, assigning reporters to go to meetings, make phone calls, knock on doors and check facts. As the deadline neared, reporters would turn in their stories, and good editors would ask hard questions. Who is this guy? What’s his motive? Who pays his salary? How do we know this is true? How can we verify he’s not lying to us? Where necessary, reporters would plug the holes, fix the stories, delete the trivia and resubmit a version that met the editor’s standards.
It wasn’t a perfect process, but it worked.
There were weekly and monthly news cycles as well, governed by weekend lulls and monthly magazine cycles. They provided even more perspective, because what seems like the most important thing in the world on Tuesday morning often turns out to be irrelevant by Thursday afternoon. Often, it gets “trumped” by something more important, or proven false.
I recognized the wisdom of these natural cycles when I was covering all-day events such as trials or conventions. At first, I naively thought I could just “write up” what happened as the day went along, put a “lede” on it at the end of the day and go get a beer. It never worked out that way, because covering news isn’t just about gathering quotes and dumping them out there for the world. It’s about understanding, making decisions, and writing stories that give us an accurate, fair account of what happened — usually in less than 1,000 words.
In all of this, the physical limitations of the paper product provided an important filter. With a limited “news hole,” editors had to make tough decisions about what was “news.” Now, with unlimited air time and Internet capacity, Lindsay Lohan’s latest car accident can carry as much weight as the historic decisions being made in Congress as part of the new Farm Bill. One’s about a mediocre actress who’s a junkie. One’s about our nation’s food supply. I mean, really!
We still don’t know much about how things will work in the future, but several trends are clear. Less thought will go into what gets covered, and how. There will be far fewer editors reading copy. Reporters will be expected to take videos, shoot pictures, “live tweet” their stories and format their own stories. There’s simply no way a reporter can wear so many hats and still pay full attention to the primary task of gathering and writing the news.
Our focus has been on the correcting of typos and grammar, but the greater loss is the role an experienced editor plays in making sure the reporter understands what he’s writing about.
Because that’s the only way we as consumers of news will ever know what the hell our politicians, business leaders and others are up to.