It was a fairly relaxing break from posting (you could call it an extended Fourth of July holiday if you’d like – I suppose that my rantings on how overworked we are as a country made me take a couple of days off to really let it soak in). I’ve also been taking some time to write, you know, prose. Yeah, that thing I spent a good portion of two years doing. It’s not that I don’t find this engaging or useful, but at some point, I’ve got to take some time to produce something relevant between now and when I go to grad school (read: pay off my student loans and get tired of working in an office). If I make some money from it, so be it. At least I’ll end up with some nice journal subscriptions in the guise of writing contest entrance fees.
In any case, is this Chris Benoit/Wikipedia thing odd, or what? It turns out that Benoit’s double murder was leaked to Wikipedia 13 hours before the police actually found the three bodies at the Benoit residences. The story in and of itself is pretty awkward and interesting enough, but the real story – as outlined by Noam Cohen in an interesting piece in today’s Times – lies more in the future consequences of the tale. What drove this unnamed source to break the story before running to the police with the knowledge that Benoit had murdered two people and would (or already had, depending on whom you read it from) kill himself? Does the fact that the source obviously came from the inside of the WWE, Benoit’s employer mean that we are entering an even greater phase of the private, or even matters of law, permeating the public sphere?
Cohen notes that while “Investigators “checked it out very thoroughly” and concluded “it was pure coincidence,” – the question is still begging to be asked – what consequences does this have on every part of the distribution of news? Every actor in the process – from the perpetrator to the source to the reporters to the pundits – are affected. If primary sources are going to take to the anonymity of Wikipedia to announce their news, can the extinction of the newspaper as we know it be that far away? As Cohen even admits, this is not the first time that this has happened:
The Benoit case, minus that part about predicting the future, isn’t unique. There was the case of the film director and actress Adrienne Shelley, who was murdered in Greenwich Village last year. Editors at The New York Times were given a tip, and in the course of reading about her on Wikipedia (yes, newspaper editors read Wikipedia), saw that her death had already been listed. In fact, it was a full day later before the news became public knowledge, as we usually think of it.
The British newspaper The Guardian reported a similar experience in 2005, when editors there found the only confirmation of the death of the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin on Wikipedia.
Reliably though, at the end of the day, Cohen works for a prominent newspaper and he is of the (most understandable) stance that newspapers still play the most vital role in the process of reportage.
This is the crucial dividing line: between reporting on events in as close to real time as possible — which can prove jarring to society, and journalists in particular, but hardly supernatural — and predicting things around the bend.
As the Benoit case and others show, it may be human nature to confuse the two.
Cohen’s case? The case we always hear from those who work for the newspaper and cannot separate their mouths from their heads. That the holier-than-thou newspaper is still alive and kicking.
Which brings me to my point. Logically, the answer is simple. Cohen, although I sympathize with his hopefulness, is not so much incorrect, but he just needs a new perspective. Newspapers already are irrelevant machines of the industrial age. If they were not, there is no chance that this type of elementary undermining would be occurring in so many important murder cases. What is there that is more public than murder? There is a human body, it’s science, neighborhoods, families, public structure, and business involved, to name a few important sectors of society that used to be the pure realm of the daily paper. By having the proverbial rug pulled out from underneath it so many times, the newspaper has inadvertently and inevitably sealed it’s fate as an also-ran in the spectrum of pure news. With the immediacy of 2007, newspapers don’t stand a chance.
So why do I still read the physical Times whenever I can? Because newspapers are no longer what people usually think of them to be – they are even greater resources of knowledge. They are the bastions of clever and intelligent analysis. If I want to know what’s happened in Sudan in the last twenty-four hours, I consult CNN.com – or Wikipedia for that matter. But if I want to know the real stories of real humanity and insight, I read the Times. I read Krugman because he has a perspective that Anderson Cooper could only dream of.
And this is the future of newspapers.
As the world grows even further into a global state, and the news comes faster and faster, the stalwarts of newspaper publishing will become the new literature for a world so obsessed in the now. The newspaper won’t ever die. Like a fine wine, it will only grow more and more indispensable as it ages.
Which, Mr. Cohen, is a very, very good thing for those of us who love the newspaper.
Tom, I wish they would put it closer to my door too.