This sentiment is so familiar—and so frequently repeated and enshrined in the trade—that it prompts an obvious question: Is it true? Historically, newspapers like the Post have played an important role in the lives of their communities and have certainly wielded influence. But just as quantity is scarcely a measure of distinction, power is not necessarily an emblem of quality. Some newspapers are better than others, in terms both of intrinsic value and their contribution to “our grand democratic experiment.” Others—and I can think of a few—cannot be described so charitably.
In fact, in broad historical terms, the Post’s case requires a discomforting footnote. The fact is that newspapers are not just a relatively recent invention—large metropolitan dailies like the Post scarcely existed before the Civil War—but for some time “our grand democratic experiment” progressed reasonably well without them. This is not to say that we would benefit from their absence. I am an old newspaperman myself and wish the Post well. But it is to suggest that connecting the survival of American democracy to the health of newspapers amounts to special pleading.
For the truth is that the implications of digital technology—for journalism, at any rate—have yet to be realized, much less understood.