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From left: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam in All the President's Men (1976). (AP)
From left: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam in All the President's Men (1976). (AP)

Simon Houpt

The newspaper biz used to be so cool Add to ...

Where’s Robert Redford when we need him?

More than 35 years ago, after the Sundance Kid did a star turn in All the President’s Men, a generation of kids rushed into journalism schools around North America hoping to become the next Bob Woodward. Journalism hit its zenith of cool, seen as an endeavour that could not only bring down a president but also receive the Hollywood treatment.

And now? With all due respect to my hard-working colleagues, we are not cool. Worse, we desperately wish we were.

At least that’s the thesis of Richard Tofel, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is now the general manager of the not-for-profit investigative outfit ProPublica.

Last week, Tofel published Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future, an e-book (initially available, yes, for free, but now priced at $1.99) in which he tries to understand how the industry fell into the toilet.

He places the blame largely on the handful of families who dominated the U.S. newspaper business for more than a century. At first, he says, the stewardship of those clans – the Ochses and Sulzbergers (The New York Times), the Otises and Chandlers (Los Angeles Times), the Hearsts and Pulitzers and Knights and Ridders – helped to keep their companies insulated from outside pressures.

But as the third and fourth generations ascended to their thrones by birthright rather than hard work, Tofel argues, some were perhaps less equipped than their predecessors. They fell under the sway of outside consultants pitching ephemeral trends.

They were insecure, uncool, and they knew it.

Then, along came Silicon Valley, with its innovator-as-hero mythos, its rebel streak and its mantra that “information wants to be free.”

The newspaper biz became like the high-school nerd who was only too eager to help the quarterback cheat on math tests, as long as they could hang out together.

So we gave away the product of our hard work, because the cool kids insisted that was the cool thing to do.

Striving for a bit of borrowed cool himself, Tofel quotes Normal Mailer’s essay The White Negro, which argues that “one is Hip or one is Square ... one is a rebel or one conforms.”

Newspapers may once have been rebels, but that’s not the way people think of us. They prefer their rebels to be like Julian Assange, who, when he first came to mainstream attention with the release of the Afghan War Logs in July, 2010, was treated to articles like one in this paper, which carried the quivering headline “Weirdly alluring, WikiLeaks’s founder brings sexy back to whistle-blowing.” (This was before he was accused of rape, which of course made him uncool.)

Recently, though, legacy news organizations have decided that they don’t care about being uncool. Newspapers including The New York Times and the Financial Times have had some success with metering systems – the outside world calls them paywalls – to earn circulation revenue. (This summer, The Globe and Mail will follow suit with its own premium package.) Incidentally, not caring about being cool or uncool – that is, being yourself – is the first step to being cool.

And on Tuesday, The Associated Press filed suit in New York against the Meltwater Group, a 10-year-old company founded in Norway that offers an online press-clipping service for about 20,000 clients. AP says the “parasitic” Meltwater steals its news stories; Meltwater says the newswire is misinformed about its service, which it likened to Google News.

In its suit, AP offered four examples of its deep investment in reporting, including the fact that it is the only Western news organization with a full bureau in North Korea. “The creative work that operators like Meltwater appropriate for free and exploit to their benefit is expensive, substantial and highly skilled, and could not be sustained without appropriate compensation to those who create it,” the filing reads.

And there was another example, which seemed like something out of another era. “When Aretha Franklin wanted to announce she was getting engaged, she called just one reporter: AP music writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody, who has cultivated a long relationship with Franklin.”

That boast came even as people were still talking about the fact that the news of Whitney Houston’s death on Saturday emerged from a tweet by the niece of Houston’s hairstylist. By one measure, it made the AP seem kind of stuck behind the times, kind of uncool. But the AP was the first to verify the news, to report the truth, because that is its raison d’etre. Which is kind of cool.

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Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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