Newspapers have become the bullied schoolkid of American journalism.
Meaning that, as a small child will surrender his lunch money to bigger kids and spend the noon hour watching other people eat, so have newspapers wound up in the ignominious position of surrendering our product — information — to Internet and cable outlets and watching them reap handsome profits from aggregating and re-reporting it while we furlough employees and cut back home delivery. They take our product and kick our butts with it.
So it was with no small interest that I received last week’s news of the sale of The Washington Post. After 80 years of stewardship by the storied Graham family, the Post will become the property of Jeff Bezos, the man who founded Amazon.com. Sale price: $250 million.
But what happened last week represents more than a transfer of assets. No, it embodies a generational shift that will, let us fervently hope, resurrect an industry that has somehow managed the odd paradox of being vital, yet moribund.
To put that another way: One gets tired of providing the boots with which someone else kicks one’s backside.
If that state of affairs represents a humiliation for the newspaper business, it should be regarded warily even by those who draw their paychecks from other industries. They should ask themselves what will happen to the electronic media that use and aggregate our product in the event we are no longer around to create it. And if that information is no longer available anywhere, what happens to the people who need and depend on it?
It is not often remarked upon, not much appreciated and little understood, but newspapers — yes, I mean the old-fashioned business of printing on dead trees accounts of things that happened yesterday — are the foundation of American journalism.