The Great Newspaper Fuzz-Out

I had a strange experience the other day. I was on a plane leafing through the New York Times, when somewhere over Connecticut I had the sudden sensation that I was reading through a kind of haze.

By "haze" I mean the inevitable fuzzing effect of mainstream media conventions - the assumption of a distant omniscience, and the fealty to "balance" that is now so easily manipulated by media-savvy interests in politics, business, or entertainment. The result is a seemingly contradictory sense that, in spite of all the quotes, facts and context, reality is not being accurately rendered but obscured.

This haze has enveloped traditional media stories on politics, rendering the form increasingly useless, except as a venue for punditry and gossip. Politics is inherently a subjective business, of course, and accelerating trends of the past few years have taken political coverage almost completely round the bend: MSM cluelessness about the changing media environment, the rise of the conservative press and the netroots, and the Bush administration's determination to transgress traditional rules of journalism, politics, and government to further GOP advantage (the last, as we know, has now backfired spectacularly).

Sure enough, the lead story in the Times on that day (last Wednesday) was headlined Bush and Cheney Chide Democrats on Iraq Deadline. The story reported some Bush and Cheney spin as straight-up news, the most important event of the day in the judgment of Times editors. The story ends up telling us nothing about the underlying dynamics of the faceoff - what this really means. The paper as a whole is moving away from this formula. But it's not happening fast enough.

Thankfully, there's still less haze surrounding your basic, on-scene reporting - whether it's from faraway locations or the NY area. Ditto with science, business, maybe sports. Traditional journalism still delivers on those things better than anybody else, and the Times that day had a good assortment of stuff - an interesting, if predictable, story on the foxes guarding the OSHA henhouse; a story by the talented Dennis Overbye on the discovery of an earthlike planet outside the solar system; a report on Islamism in Turkish politics.

It's an impressive range and depth. But even such specialized reportage is losing its once-impregnable niche. The Times used to have, if not a literal monopoly in some of these areas, then a cultural monopoly - a presumption it was the go-to source, the ultimate authority. But now, to cite one example, there's ever-more access to scientific information on the web. If you have a particular interest you can satisfy it much more easily on the web than via a standard newspaper article, which is meant to reach the broadest possible audience. Ditto with business stories.

So it wasn't surprising when, on the plane, the entire NYT-reading experience went fuzzy on me. Usually, I suppose, I'd just put the paper down if I got bored, but being a captive audience drove the point home - something is palpably breaking down here. Circulation keeps dropping not just because there are other choices, but because newspapers can no longer command, or even tenuously hold, people's attention.

Maybe you don't think this is remarkable; maybe you never read newspapers, or had this type of experience five years ago. But I used to love reading newspapers; I am a newspaper person by training and experience, and it pains and alarms me to admit the sudden urge to pitch the whole thing, wash off my ink-stained fingers and be done with it.

On the other hand ... David Carr goes to Jazz Fest, and finds time to do a quick story on The Times-Picayune, my former employer, which more than any other newspaper these days embodies the basic mission of journalism. There's nothing really new in Carr's piece, but its portrait captures something important: Just about everybody who has returned to New Orleans reads the paper, because their future literally depends on it.

To put it another way, New Orleans is a community in constant flux, under threat by nature, its own internal problems, and national indifference. And yet it is a community, and the newspaper plays an important role in binding it together. What's going to do that for the rest of us? And if the answer is "nothing," what does that mean?