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Is there a place for the traditional newspaper in the internet age?

Book Review: Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post: A Great Newspaper Fights For its Life by Dave Kindred

There is something misleading about the main title of Dave Kindred’s book on the recent history of The Washington Post: Morning Miracle. Anyone aware of the epic problems the newspaper industry has been facing with the emergence of the internet, not to mention 24-hour cable news and the general financial debacle seeing the word “miracle” applied to the Post might well be forgiven for thinking the book was about how the paper managed to beat the odds and maintain itself in the grand tradition of Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, Donald Graham and Len Downie. That at any rate is what this reader expected; that isn’t quite what this reader got.

The tradition is there. There are plenty of stories both old and new about the paper’s great years: Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, of course, but also about more recent coups. There are detailed accounts of the stories that garnered the Post six Pulitzer prizes in 2008, especially the expose of the poor treatment of veterans at Walter Reed, the coverage of the shootings at Virginia Tech and the feature story on virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell busking in a busy D.C. subway station. Significantly, these unprecedented successes came even as the paper was losing money, losing circulation and downsizing to try to cope with the intractable problems that might well lead to its demise. Quality reportage, it seems, was no guarantee of survival.

An impassioned defense of importance of the daily newspaper for the social and political fabric of a community is there. And while it is for the most part the kind of lament one has heard repeated over and over again for the past few years, as one paper or another folds its tents and drifts off into the ‘nethersphere,’ it does ring with a sense of truth. If newspapers can’t earn the kinds of returns necessary to justify long form investigative reporting and news gathering facilities around the world, who is going to do it? Who is going to speak truth to power? What the newspaper does is necessary in a vital democracy, the argument seems to go, even if no one is willing to pay for it.

What is not there is a solution. It’s not there, because no one has yet figured one out. The Post, like the other major newspapers, has tried and is continuing to try different models to find ways to use the internet to help save the print journal, to diversify its holdings, and to reinvent its voice for the local community. Some of these seeds have borne fruit; some are yet to blossom. Whether they will ever be able to bring back the good old days, whether the newspaper will ever be the kind of force it was back in the day when Ben Bradlee walked the newsroom remains to be seen. If there is a miracle, it is in what The Washington Post was and what it might be again, not what it is.

Kindred has a truly romantic attitude towards journalism and the people who practice it. The most interesting parts of the book are the profiles of the individual reporters and editors who inhabit the newsroom. These are the people who will wake at dawn and spend the next 23 hours chasing their story. They will gobble down fast food and guzzle coffee as they pursue leads. They will corner the powerful and ask the embarrassing question, and ask it again and again until they get an answer. They will bleed red for their story, and they will do it all on their day off. Who, he asks, wouldn’t want a job like that? These are people who love what they do and they would do it for nothing, or maybe meal money. The newsroom of today may not move to the incessant beat of the typewriter keys, but for Kindred it is still the newsroom of The Front Page.

There are nicely done verbal portraits of some of the old warhorses. Walter Pincus: asked why the septuagenarian was a reporter, he answered, “To change the world.” There are the mid-career hot shots. Dana Priest: five months pregnant she takes an assignment to Baghdad: “This,” she says, “is what I’m living for.” There are the callow ‘wannabees.’ James Hohmann: started his own paper reporting on his family and selling it to them for a dollar a copy. He was five years old. Kindred has a real knack for getting at the essence of the people he describes. Some of them may be cranky at times, but they are always committed. He is not inclined to show anyone’s clay feet.

The one major exception is Katherine Weymouth, the Graham niece who takes over running the paper and has the responsibility of turning its fortunes around. She doesn’t come across quite as nobly as some of the ‘real’ news people, but even here he treats her with kid gloves. Responsible for the policy of buying out a number of the Post stalwarts, for changing the culture of the paper, and for trying to return it to profit at the expense of some of the traditional newsman’s cherished values, she would have been a ripe target. Yet although criticism is implicit in much that he has to say about her and her short tenure, he never really attacks her.

Morning Miracle has a lot to say about the plight of the newspaper industry in the first decade of the 21st century, as illustrated in the story of one of the great papers as it struggles to remake itself and reaffirm its place in the media hierarchy. Unfortunately though it may be a losing battle, it is one that Kindred at least feels needs to be fought. Given the current landscape, if it, or any other newspaper manages the trick, it will indeed be a miracle.

About Jack Goodstein

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