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The Old Media

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Los Angeles, where I live, there was plenty of snickering this week about Tribune Company's decision to file for bankruptcy protection. Tribune owns the Los Angeles Times, which in recent years has seen its staff cut even more than its circulation and advertising.

The once mighty Times has managed to give almost everyone in Los Angeles a reason to hate it, as it cycled through editors and publishers and one staff reduction after another. You don't have to be a youthful new media type to brag about canceling your subscription to the Times, or how you get your news online, or how what used to take half a Sunday to read now only takes half an hour.

Similar snickers, albeit perhaps quieter ones, followed the news that the cash-strapped New York Times was taking out a mortgage to make ends meet. Who needs these dinosaurs?

The answer is: everyone who cares about politics or government or the arts or culture. They do two things that almost no one else does: report and edit.

I get my news online, too. At any time of the day or night, I cruise, checking out what's happening, what's new. I rarely sit down and read a newspaper anymore, not in the old-fashioned way that I used to.

But most of the websites I frequent don't report news themselves. And they don't edit the dispatches of those who do. They aggregate and collect the stories that other people -- most of them newspaper reporters -- write. They reprint, recite and regurgitate the news, but they don't report it.

There are, of course, the millions of "blogs" out there. Most of them are full of people's opinions about the news. Nothing wrong with that, as I should be the first to say. But the opinions that interest me most are the ones that are based on something more than the automatic jerk of one knee or the other. The best columnists are the ones who know something about something, who are either reporters themselves or pay careful attention to the work of others who are.

As for blogs that actually report the news, the short answer is that they are few and far between. The ones that do, and do it well, depend on someone not so different from a newspaper reporter to go out and dig facts, and someone not so different from a newspaper editor to review their material before it's published. The Huffington Post started out as a collection of unpaid blogs and links to other media sources. It has since taken what it must have seen as the necessary step of hiring former reporters and editors, as has Josh Marshall's first-rate Talking Points Memo.

The truth, whether you want to admit it or not, is that what drives public discourse today is still the work of the nation's top newspapers: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and, yes, even my much snickered about Los Angeles Times. If they can't do their job, they won't be the only ones who suffer. All of us who depend on their reporters and editors will suffer, and so will the public discourse about important issues.

Talking about the news is easy. Finding it, digging for it and separating what's accurate from what's not are laborious, time-consuming and often unrewarding tasks. Newspapers, even the best of them, make plenty of mistakes. I've been their target often enough to know that. But in this information age, we need them and the professional standards of reporting and editing to which they aspire, even if they do not always meet them.

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