Editor's Letter: A taste of our own medicine

Now that newspapers have fallen on hard times, the industry finds itself in the unusual position of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned, if sometimes mistaken, advice.

Newspapers have been dispensing advice by the bucket load ever since the printing press transformed the neighborhood know-it-all into an editorial writer. Not all of that advice has been above reproach. (Translation: Cheap shots ahead.) The New-England Courant, published by Ben Franklin’s older brother James, argued that inoculating Boston’s population against a smallpox epidemic was wrongheaded. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst advised that Alf Landon would be “overwhelmingly elected” over Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. Two years later, London’s Daily Express told readers to rest easy—there would be “no major war in Europe this year or the next year.” More recently the New York Post counseled in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing that the destruction was a sure sign of “Middle Eastern terrorists at work.”

Now that newspapers have fallen on hard times, however, advice is running in the other direction. “Micropayments” will save the industry, some advise. By charging pennies per article, the first paper with a billion readers will achieve enviable profit margins. Others recommend a takeover by nonprofit foundations—on the theory that profit will be forever non in the newspaper industry. Still others insist that government should subsidize the journalists who cover it. And then there are those helpful souls who recommend, with omniscience if not exacting specificity, that newspapers must, um, “innovate.” I love newspapers, and I worry about the consequences of their demise. But I also confess that in one horribly narrow, hopelessly petty corner of my mind, I enjoy reading the litany of unsolicited and not always useful advice. The captains of editorial opinion are at last subject to their own sometimes sensible, sometimes suspect, occasionally flat-out-mistaken medicine.

Francis Wilkinson

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