NPR's On the Media


Broadcast: December 11, 1999

Mitchell Stephens

A golden age for newspapers?

What happens to an established form of communication when a new one starts taking over? This is an old question for newspaper watchers, but I'm proposing a new answer: Often a golden age happens.

Consider movies in the increasingly television-obsessed late sixties and early seventies. Many critics now believe that was when filmmaking in America was most creative, most original.

Consider also what happened to theater when print was moving in on England, say about the year 1600. Shakespeare was among those content to toil away in that old, presumably outdated medium.

But newspapers? Today? With their circulations on a seemingly endless decline? With cautious corporate functionaries ensconced at the top of most mastheads? After all those stories about Monica?

The case for a golden age begins with the look of our papers. Those stuffy, gray ladies of yesteryear now wear colors and look almost fashionable. Increasingly they are not just laid out, but designed. And this makeover has not merely been cosmetic. It includes more revealing illustrations, much better charts, more, and more thoughtful, listings.

And, surprisingly, there�s more news in most American papers now. Carl Stepp, writing in the American Journalism Review, demonstrated this by counting column inches in newspapers thirty-five years ago.

Stepp also concluded that newspaper writing has gotten much better. This won�t seem so shocking if you�ve had occasion recently to plow through the lengthy, fact-dense paragraphs that squat atop most stories preserved on microfilm. No newspaper journalist today may deserve comparison with Shakespeare � or even with Ernie Pyle � but most do at least TRY to write more lucidly, more engagingly, more analytically.

And as for coverage� Well, if you believe the news world begins and ends in city halls and state capitals then this is certainly no golden age for you. Same if you miss the ideologically charged days of the cold war. But those of us who think there�s also news in corporations, hip hop, romance, migraines and migrations have never found so much of interest in our dailies.

The explanation for this apparent golden age? Competition with television and now the Internet is, happily, forcing newspapers to do more, to be different, to do better. Movies thirty years ago were inspired by a similar challenge from television.

Newspapers today are also catering to increasingly elite, better-educated audiences. The less-educated, unhappily, have been abandoning newspapers, mostly in favor of television, just when there may be good reason to stay.

Not that it is possible to pick up an American newspaper today without finding a couple of blown leads or missed stories. I said golden age, not perfect age.