Remembering the Role of Newspapers on a Dark Day
One of my enduring memories of Sept. 11, 2001 is witnessing a crowd of people gathered around a newsstand in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. They were there because The Philadelphia Inquirer, along with many other newspapers around the country, had put out a special afternoon edition to cover the immediate aftermath and local impact of the terrorist attacks. Despite the presence of TV and the Internet, people were hungry for news—and, perhaps, a reason to get outside and be around others. Many also probably felt comforted by the fact that, even as the world seemed to teeter on the brink, reporters were still reporting, printers were still printing and trucks were still delivering. In the midst of chaos, the newspaper provided tangible proof that the basic bulwarks of society were intact.
At the time, I marveled at the appearance of an afternoon edition, but what seemed strange then is likely impossible now. So much has changed in 11 years—the advent of smartphones, tablets and social media make the idea of extra editions (or any editions) superfluous. Having lost their role as exclusive, authoritative information sources, newspapers face, at best, an uncertain future. In 2001, papers were still cash cows. Today, they are being put out to pasture.
The next big crisis will demonstrate what is lost when local papers lose their vitality. When the New Orleans Times-Picayune laid off a third of its staff in June, thoughts immediately turned to the heroic role that newspaper played during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What will fill its shoes when another hurricane hits? Will it be local blogs, websites and social networks? The national media? The Times-Picayune itself, in pared down, pertinacious form? More to the point, can any media entity succeed in being the "tie that binds" in the midst of a dark day?