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The real lesson from the death of News of the WorldThe real lesson from the death of News of the World

The real lesson from the death of News of the World

It is that newspapers in general have entered the stage of existence where it becomes impossible to learn anything even when survival itself is at stake. It was a justifiable call for the front page, if only from the man-bites-dog angle of a newspaper closing because its owner feels the sudden pangs of conscience rather than the pain of hemorrhaging cash.

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Topics: Journalism, Media, Death, Innovation
The real lesson from the death of News of the World July 8, 2011  |  By Peter Stockland
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The front page of today's Globe and Mail offers the real lesson to be learned from the death of Britain's tabloid News of the World.

It is that newspapers in general have entered the stage of existence where it becomes impossible to learn anything even when survival itself is at stake.

The Globe's line story itemizes media magnate Rupert Murdoch's decision, apparently made in less than 36 hours, to shut down the News of the World over revelations its editors allowed the odious and criminal hacking of private voicemails to obtain news stories.

It was a justifiable call for the front page, if only from the man-bites-dog angle of a newspaper closing because its owner feels the sudden pangs of conscience rather than the pain of hemorrhaging cash.

What is instructive about the Globe story, though, is that there is not a single paragraph of information in it that has not been available on the web for anywhere from 18 to 48 hours.

I read each useless paragraph this morning purely because a) I am hopelessly habituated to reading a newspaper at breakfast and b) in my formative years as a reporter, I regularly bought the News of the World and other Brit tabs as study guides to learn how to write and report like that.

Yet even I, spurred by those motivators, noticed the lack of the newness in the Globe's news about the News of the World. Even I asked myself after the third paragraph, "Why am I reading this?" What of other readers if even I had that reaction?

The point is not to fault the reporter who reported the story, or the editor who made the call to play it a particular way. The point is the existential impossibility of newspapers belatedly understanding their incapacity to bring the news of the world to anyone.

Their return to relevance would require an entire re-ordering of their purpose and their being. They would have to become their antithesis. They would have to become "not news" papers by bold design rather than just from their present failure to learn what they need to learn to survive.

For example, hidden in the deepest depths of today's Globe is a first-rate column by a writer named Chrystia Freeland on a serious academic study of the American Tea Party movement. There is nothing in it that qualifies as "news" conventionally defined. Nor is it mere hyper-partisan commentary of the kind that, in Conrad Black's immortal phrase, flows like sludge through the op-ed pages of far too many newspapers.

What it brings to the table is that most non-journalistic of qualities: understanding.

Frankly, I don't care much about the Tea Party. I do care about understanding significant political movements, particularly when untruths are empirically dispelled along the way. Freeland's piece hit the mark and left me asking for more.

Would putting content such as Freeland's column on the front page "save" newspapers? No. They can't be saved, which doesn't mean they won't continue some kind of existence for many years yet. It's called being doomed.

The great Lachine, Quebec-born novelist, Saul Bellow, ironically titled one of his novels More Die of Heartbreak. The irony was that in the novel, as in so much of Bellow's work, the world is a place where most die of habits that make it impossible to learn how to be something new.

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