The Magazine

The Next Great American Newspaper

From the June 23, 2003 issue: Replacing the New York Times.

Jun 23, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 40 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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ROUGHLY SIX YEARS AGO I gave a talk at a D.C. think tank complaining that it was outrageous for the conservative community (that vigorous, virile young beast) to allow New York City to subsist on the thin gruel of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, both left of center. Don't books matter? Doesn't critical opinion at the center of the publishing (not to say the cultural) world count? The Times Book Review feels its responsibility and tries to be fair--I don't know whether a conservative weekly would try as hard--but it is what it is. The fault lies not in the Times but in ourselves. If conservative thinkers and tycoons cared a tenth as much about culture as they do about politics, the situation would have been Righted decades ago. Response to my talk was reassuring: Good idea, important! But relax, everything is under control. The problem was gone into years ago by experts and found to be insoluble.

Times have changed. For a generation this country has needed a whole new set of institutions, and today they are finally (albeit obliquely) arriving and taxiing in. Talk radio has been solid for years. Fox News (which has ties to this magazine too numerous to disclose) assaulted dug-in cultural positions from an unexpected direction--and suddenly a New Generation of Americans (my own boys, for example) were watching TV news. I'd thought TV news was dead. And a few weeks ago, THE WEEKLY STANDARD itself addressed ground zero of American culture by calling for a new daily newspaper in this country. "We need, and deserve, a great daily newspaper. . . . Careful and truthful, lively and unpompous, confident and not smug--and, of course, fair, balanced, and unafraid. Who will found it?"

It can happen and is bound to. The conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is a vital asset, but Manhattan was always intended for a Times and a Herald Tribune--one Democratic Alpha Male newspaper and one Republican. (There is also the new and first-rate Sun; more below.) But the Herald Tribune died nearly 40 years ago--of labor trouble, not lack of readers. That it has never been replaced is one of the strangest, saddest anomalies of modern cultural history. (And yet not that strange; rather all too typical of the Establishment's favorite response to the challenges of the 1960s--roll over and die.)

America's next great newspaper is a wonderful idea--but it will have to be published on the web and not on paper, and as a new style web newspaper, not one of today's conventional web-based losers. It is coming--and (in the nature of things) it will redefine the news story and the newspaper.

Why on the web and not on newsprint? It's much cheaper to produce and distribute that way, and your distribution network puts you, automatically, in homes all over the world. The web is a medium young readers can manage. Young people don't read newspapers; chances are they don't even know how. But they know how to play with computers. (Possibly this is the only thing they do know. Or almost the only.) And, most important: A newspaper sells timeliness if it sells anything. The idea that newspapers can no longer compete in the "fresh news" market because of all-news cable channels is silly; radio has been delivering bulletins for eighty years, but people continued to read newspapers anyway, for as long as they were worth reading. Because a web-paper is a "virtual" object made of software, capable of changing by the microsecond, lodged inside a computer where fresh data pour in constantly at fantastic rates, a web-paper can be the timeliest of them all--and it can be a great paper if it plays to its natural advantages and delivers timeliness with style.

Why a "new style" web newspaper and not today's style? Because today's web-papers are wedge-ins, stop-gaps, crack fillers, with all the character of putty in a plastic spritz-tube; people read them not for pleasure and illumination but to extract a necessary fact or kill time when they are stuck at their desks. Their builders don't seem to have grasped what makes the newsprint newspaper one of design history's greatest achievements. (Do they ever read a newspaper?) No web newspaper will match all of newsprint's best qualities, but web designers should understand those qualities so they can concoct new ones that are (in their ways) equally attractive. The mere timid transfer of newsprint-style newspapers to the web--standard operating procedure today--is bound to yield failure, just as primitive movies had to be boring so long as directors merely pointed their cameras at a stage and slurped up Broadway plays. Movies needed their own, new ways to tell a story. Web newspapers do too.