The Decline and Fall of (Almost) Everything

Over the last 75 years, confidence in American institutions has waxed and waned. It was low during the 1930’s, during the years of the Great Depression, but after that things improved. The year 1965 was a high point, the great majority of the American people giving consistently positive evaluations of American institutions nearly across the board.

Since then, things have gone more or less steadily downhill. Our confidence in American institutions has continued to decline, even, or especially, during the last several decades. The numbers are grim, the long term trend being relentlessly down, with new lows recorded only recently for Americans’ confidence in schools, churches, banks and television news.

Media have been especially hard hit. Not only have old media had to contend with the decline in confidence, they have had to contend with new media, with on line media, which have threatened their predecessors to the point of near extinction.

All this came inevitably to mind yesterday, when the news came out that one of the most venerable of old media institutions, the Washington Post, was sold to one of the most original of new media moguls, Jeff Bezos. Of the media transitions concluded only recently – including the sale of the Boston Globe to John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox – the sale of the Post was the most emblematic. Though Post stalwarts such as iconic journalist Bob Woodward put their best faces forward – saying how great it all was, that someone as perfectly wonderful as Bezos was now in a position to make the decisions – the fact of the matter is there was sadness that so great a paper as the Post had hemorrhaged so much cash and so much circulation it could not continue.

To most rules there is an exception – in this case is the New York Times. It is impossible to exaggerate each of the following: 1) how singularly superb remains the paper of record; 2) how singular sturdy remains the paper of record (it has stemmed the tide sweeping away other media family dynasties); and 3) how singularly nimble remains the paper of record (it has adapted to the changing times in spite of its own significant losses). It was, in fact, the New York Times Company that sold the Globe to Henry, having clearly concluded it should shed whatever was extraneous to concentrate on its core mission – a single publication to crush the competition.

For those of us old enough to remember a time when Americans were less cynical and not so jaded, it’s a relief that one of the greatest of all American institutions endures. The Times carries now as it did then “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” And it carries now, as it did not then, “All the News That’s Fit to Click.” The paper remains as it has for well over a century in the Ochs/Sulzberger family, which clearly considers the paper a national trust. Following industry trends, the Times’ weekday circulation has fallen. But, bucking industry trends, its website has emerged as America’s most successful. Each month it receives upwards of 30 million unique visitors – a feat in a media environment that is nothing if not hostile. And an exception in an institutional environment that is nothing if not depressing.

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