Death of a Gutenberg Nation
I find the great die-off of American newspapers one of the dullest subjects imaginable, because it’s almost universally discussed in dishonest terms. They’re not simply dying off; they’re committing suicide. Perhaps it’s time. Most long ago abandoned the radical mess of democracy for polite participation in establishment consensus. Sure, the biggest papers occasionally throw a punch, and the little ones occasionally reel in a local pol; but they do so in the service of order, not revelation. They’re high church, in the worst sense, deacons shushing the pews. It was not always so, as Richard Rodriguez writes in the new Harper’s (sub only; you should subscribe):
When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death—and why else would the editors celebrate its 144th anniversary? and why else would the editors devote a week to feature articles on fog?—it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.
Most newspapers that are dying today were born in the nineteenth century. The Seattle Post–Intelligencer died 2009, born 1863. The Rocky Mountain News died 2009, born 1859. The Ann Arbor News died 2009, born 1835. It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence. We were the Gutenberg Nation.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).