Newspapers still have power, it seems — to shock and to condemn

By now, those who spend a lot of time online (or read the news) have probably gotten used to the idea that printed newspapers are declining in relevance: their newsrooms are shrinking, some are closing down or going bankrupt, and others are trying to shore up their falling revenue with paywalls. But it’s worth noting that even these alleged dinosaurs still have some power over us, if the events of the past week are any guide — and the shared experience they offer has no real equivalent online. What happens to society when (or if) we lose that?

The first example comes from the New York Post, which ran a photo on its front page on Tuesday of a man who had been pushed onto the subway tracks and was about to die. The response was overwhelmingly negative — and not just in newspaper columns like the one David Carr wrote for the New York Times, but on blogs and in comments on Twitter and Facebook as well.


Why does a printed photo still have so much power?

What’s interesting about this response is that dozens of photos of people who are about to die likely appear on the internet somewhere every day, whether it’s a picture that gets posted to Twitter or Facebook (s fb) or Tumblr or some other social network, or a news story that appears on Google News (s goog) or Yahoo News (s yhoo) or some equivalent aggregator. But would a photo of the subway victim posted on Flickr or Yfrog or even Reddit have had the same effect or gotten as much criticism as the Post picture?

One of the obvious differences with the Post photo is that it was of a man who was about to die in a way that many readers could identify with — since plenty of them presumably take the subway, and may have even experienced fear about what a mentally ill homeless person might do to them on the platform. And it was also targeted at the most likely viewers in a specific location: namely, New York City. From there, it spread throughout the internet, but as Carr noted in his piece, the sense of dread — and powerlessness — THAT many viewers felt was likely universal.

“The image is a kind of crucible of self-analysis. Never mind what the photographer did, what would we do? In that sudden moment, our base impulses emerge. Photographers shoot, heroes declare, and most of us cower. We are not soldiers, expected to engage in selfless acts that trump survival instincts. We are civilians and if called to duty, who among us will accept?” — David Carr

In a sense, the New York Post photo quickly acquired a power that very few online-only photos have, with the exception of some iconic ones such as the Flickr/Twitter photo of a plane landing on the Hudson River in 2009. Seeing it printed in a newspaper arguably gave it some of that power — just as the photos on September 11 that Carr mentions, the ones of people jumping to their deaths, also had a larger-than-life effect because they appeared in print. Would a photo shared on Facebook have that same power?

The power to ignore as well as to promote

newspaper boxes

The second example isn’t a photo but a news story — and it isn’t about a story that appeared in a newspaper, but about stories that *didn’t* appear. Namely, the stories that the New York Times didn’t run because it decided not to send a reporter to the trial of Bradley Manning, the former Army private who is accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks and has been in custody for the past two years. For many, the case is a crucial test of the government’s ability to treat a suspected whistle-blower fairly, a test that critics say it has already failed miserably.

Given what is at stake in the trial, a number of sources argued that the New York Times should have sent a reporter to cover the hearing directly, instead of just running an Associated Press story about it. The core of this argument is the idea that the Times is the “newspaper of record,” and that historic events must appear there so that they can be preserved for future generations. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, expressed something similar to this view in a post on the topic, in which she argued that the NYT was wrong to rely on wire-service coverage, and The New Republic said:

“The N.Y. Times is the paper of record that published and stood behind the Penagon Papers. Where are you now on the brutal prison treatment and studied legalities being visited on U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning? It’s unconscionable and sad if The Times sits quietly by saying nothing.” — New Republic

But isn’t the idea of a “newspaper of record” a little quaint now, a throwback to the days when one or two newspapers essentially controlled the news flow, and were seen as handmaidens of democracy instead of mortal, money-losing commercial entities? Many of us have grown accustomed to the fact that news can emerge from anywhere, at any time — from sources that are actually involved in the event in question, or from those committing “random acts of journalism” — and web-only outlets can grow to become massive media entities in their own right, like The Huffington Post (s aol).

And yet, there is clearly still some power in the shared experience of seeing news appear in a printed newspaper, to the point where many are ready to attack the Post for taking advantage of that in the service of something evil, and attack the New York Times for not taking advantage of it in the pursuit of something good. And obviously much of that power comes from the brand that has developed behind these media institutions over time — a brand that has been built up by that shared experience. But as those shared experiences and brands lose some of their power and their reach, and a hundred different web sources take over, what do we lose and what do we gain?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Getty Images/Mario Tama and Flickr user George Kelly