Of Mills And Newspapers

I just published this comment to a piece by Clay Shirky on Boing Boing titled "The Newspaper Industry and the Arrival of the Glaciers."

In 1982, I took a year’s leave of absence from my job as a reporter for the New York Daily News. Part of that time I worked as a per diem news writer for a market test for an online venture that eventually became Prodigy. No matter that Prodigy eventually proved a costly bust (basically because it was not sufficiently interactive, I believe), I had seen the future.

When my year’s leave was up, I went back to the AME in charge of personnel at the Daily News and told him I had an offer from Clay Felker to go to Adweek, but that I preferred coming back to the newspaper business. But only if I could have one of two jobs that I thought no one else wanted.

My first request, which I knew was a long shot, was to work for the Chicago Tribune’s incipient videotex (an early word for “online”) service. The Trib owned the News at the time, and they had a videotex presence in New York. My second choice was to be Bronx borough chief because I thought that there would be great stories as it rose from the ashes (like why were there ashes in the first place?). I didn’t get either job. Basically, I was told the first was too futuristic and the other was a dead end. In reality, the AME was right because both were about 15 years ahead of their time. 

So I went to work for Adweek, leaving there as editorial director of what is now Brandweek in 1990 to take a half time job as editor-at-large for NewsInc., a startup monthly covering the business of newspapers. Felker, who had himself left Adweek for a second time at this point, told me I was nuts to leave a solid platform for a startup magazine covering newspapers. I knew I was nuts, but I loved newspapers that much. But I also knew that they had better quickly get their individual acts together as the interactive voices of their local communities if they were to survive.

Just last week I came across a long essay I drafted for NewsInc in 1990 that never got finished. The story begins with a poem of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s called “The Mill.”

“The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
'There are no millers any more,'
Was all that she had heard him say.”

I then wrote: 

“There were no millers any more because there were no mills. There was instead, The Mill, a highly mechanized operation that was able to grind much more grist for many more people in a shorter time in a uniform way with greater consistency. 

The greatest self-delusion in the print journalism today is that the newspaper industry has survived its electronic competitors throughout this century, and that anyone who writes off the viability of newspapers in the face of emerging new media is spitting in the face of history. The victors, of course, write the histories. And the victors are corporations that have stakes in all media, and maintain stronger ties to Wall Street than with Main Street. 

The reality is that newspapers bear little resemblance to what they were through the first decades of this century: scrappy, boisterous and entrepreneurial ventures whose glory often rose and faded with the ability of the proprietor to make his voice more integral to his community than that of his challengers and competitors.

The reality is that any locale of any size at all had several publications vying for its citizens' eyes at a given time.

The reality is that we have "Newspaper," as the current industry ad campaign refers to the medium, but we don't have newspapers. And without newspapers, there are precious few editors and publishers any more.”

The essay goes on in its meandering way (which is why it was never published) but you catch the drift. I’ve said many times since then that the Internet of the past dozen years is very similar to what newspapers were from about the 1830s to the first World War. Another way of looking at it is that anybody who wants to be a miller is setting up his own mill. Of course, the quality of the product varies from mill to mill depending on the craftsmanship of the miller. Same as always. It will continue to get better as more millers mill.

As for the miller in Robinson’s’s poem, his wife found him hanging from a rafter. To my brethren out there who still harbor, as I do, a certain fondness for galley proofs and hot type, I say this: It doesn’t have to be that way. It has been a long time coming, but the mills are back.

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