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DUBAI: In Praise of the Newspaper, in This Digital Age

TOM PLATE WROTE the following for a leading newspaper in United Arab Emirates — the Khaleej Times. It is one of the most influential daily newspapers of the Gulf States and Arabia. The following essay appeared in a special edition of that newspaper celebrating its 35th anniversary.

“THIS IS AN age when digital media of all sorts are more and

more the predominant news force and with their child-like

energy, as if pulsating for constant attention, and with their

unapologetic insouciance, especially for facts and realities,

can make newspapers seem as dated as old television reruns.

 

It may seem inappropriate and indeed ungracious to wish to say this

on the special occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Khaleej Times. But it

has to be said, especially if we want invaluable newspapers like this one to

avoid the fate of the dinosaur.

 

Particular newspapers can be special for particular reasons. The French

newspaper Le Monde for its historic political analyses. The China Daily for

its rise on the radar screen along with the gigantic country whose government

it reflects. The New York Times for its internationalism while still based

in Manhattan, the locus of that most self-centered of all cities. And — yes

Khaleej Times for its -shall-we-say- serendipitous location at what looks

more and more like turning into the historic future center of the geopolitical

globe.

 

For just as at the end of the 19th century we began to witness history beginning its migration toward North America, and just as now we see the

21st clearly settling down over East Asia, so too will, in the future, history

establish headquarters in the zip code of what we might call West Asia.

Here the world will finally come to a proper pause and begin to appreciate

the true dimensions of the Arab Islamic past — with roots far deeper

and more profound than the nonetheless delightful icing on the cake of all

the spanking new infrastructure.

 

And so the paradox I wish to propose to you is that — for all the Internet

clutter and jazz — this is also an age when the daily newspaper seems

a more necessary aspect of our culture than ever. Of course newspapers

have always been so.

 

I remember decades ago when The Los Angeles Times was celebrating its

100th anniversary. I was asked to write a tribute, and though I was engaged

as a small chieftain at a competing newspaper, I was happy to do so. For

starters on the assignment, I remember then asking a famous American

television journalist, David Brinkley, what he would do if he absolutely had

to choose between a daily newspaper and a daily network-news broadcast

for his news. Do I only get one or the other, he asked plaintively. Only one,

the questioner replied. In that case, he said with a sigh, he’d have to choose

a newspaper.

 

The late Brinkley was not only an honest man, he was widely recognized

as a perceptive individual. As much as he loved television news, he said he

has to prefer the daily newspaper if he wants to be a serious person.

There is simply something utterly essential about it, more complete

about it, more sophisticated, complex and enduring. When conceived, edited

and published with intelligence, a daily newspaper is one of the most

complex organisms of communication still in existence.

 

This is no overstatement. A daily newspaper is not like a magazine,

which can be published every month, or maybe every week, or perhaps

whenever the publisher feels like it. A daily newspaper must be published

every day. It takes few holidays, and no leaves of absence are permitted.

On days when there is not a great deal of truly significant news, it publishes

anyway. On days when there is indeed a great deal of significant news, it

heaves and sighs and trembles as if carrying the entire weight of the world

—but it publishes anyway.

 

A daily newspaper is permitted to make no excuses. Like the sun, it must

rise in the morning, or set in the evening. But unlike the sun, it cannot hide

behind a cloud cover. It is out there, for 360 or so days a year, for all to see. This

is no laughing matter.

 

For this reason, a daily newspaper is also a most imperfect literary organism.

In even the most fully staffed of papers, typographical errors will

be found. And even graver mistakes are not unheard of, because of the

judgment calls that must be made. Well, they necessarily must be executed

with astonishing speed and fury.

 

True hard-core newspaper editors are probably a special breed. Most of

them would appear to have had artificial heart implants while still in adolescence.

In my experience, the good ones rarely display much hesitation

about decision-making, or deep remorse when the decision is not the best.

They know that their decisions cannot be delayed until tomorrow. Tomorrow is too late; a newspaper is for today.

The only seriously wrong decision is one that makes the newspaper miss

the deadline. If a story proves to have been in error, it would be so only entirely

innocently, and can be salvaged the following day. As long as the errors

form no uncaring pattern, we accept the newspaper for what it is: as

imperfect and human as the people who put it out every day.

 

But for all its predictable imperfections, the daily newspaper is a thoroughly

complex organism. Perhaps it can be compared, in some respects,

to a symphony orchestra, even though the music it plays can sometimes

seem bitter and indeed perhaps sometimes even off-key.

The front page blares out the news with all the fanfare of a brass section;

the editorial pages insinuate themselves into the audience like the interplay

of subtle woodwinds; the sports section pounds out the players and

their numbers and how they score with the imperturbable brashness of an

always confident percussion section.

 

And at the head of this vast and sometimes unruly assemblage of talent,

noise, schooling and energy stands _or falls_ the editor, trying with all his

— or her — might to get everybody to at least start and stop on cue, if you

please. This — modest or otherwise as the editor may or may not be — is

our maestro. Woe be it to the woodwind or timpani that pays the conductor

little mind, rhyme or reason,

 

Well, obviously we are very fond of newspapers. I still love them, even as

for decades I used to work at them. In the old days, on my desk at the crack

of dawn every morning, were stacked newspapers from all over the world.

From Paris, Le Monde. From London, The Daily Mail. From the East Coast,

the Washington Post and The New York Times. From some satellite transmission

high in the sky, The Wall Street Journal.

 

And here now in Los Angeles — yes, courtesy of the Internet — comes

Khaleej Times, the newspaper of Dubai, one amazing supernova of a city.

Soon the owners and the publisher and the editors and reporters and

secretaries and copy editors and deliverymen and ad salesmen and everybody

involved with Khaleej Times will celebrate the anniversary of that

newspaper. Imagine: all those years of publication.

 

Well, we who depend on it from afar, as well as those of you who consume

it in paper form every day, will want to congratulate our friends and

colleagues at the Khaleej Times.

A daily newspaper is a wondrous thing. We are moved by their anniversary.

May it publish forever — and a day.

 

University professor and author Tom Plate once worked at the Los Angeles Times as Editor of the Editorial Pages, at New York Newsday as Editorial Page Editor, at the (late) Los Angeles Herald Examiner as Editorial Page Editor and Executive Editor and – a thousand years ago – as a summer intern on the Washington Post. And he’s utterly remorseless about all of it.

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