Many words—including some of my own—have been expended lately on the plight of what we used to call daily journalism. Often they get around to saying the newspapers (and now their websites) have themselves to blame for failing to maintain a connection with their readerships.
These critiques call to mind a missed opportunity of my own from a quarter century ago. I was completing a run as a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal, an extraordinary opportunity that, for various reasons, I wasn’t maximizing. (This was the Business World opinion space that subsequently has been occupied, with a distinctive voice, by Holman Jenkins.) It was time to move on but such scribes typically get a valedictory. I couldn’t get that quite right, either. Soon enough, however, I realized what I should have written instead—and now finally I will.
This is a love note back to the readers who send “letters to the editor.” It applies to all publications, but especially to those who wrote to the Journal. Back then, the mail all came from the post, and it would collect in a desk tray for the wag who ran that department, picking and headlining the few to be published. Over my 12 years at the paper, I’d be in the office at odd hours and would enjoy chances to scour the unused pile. What a wonder!
For my money, the Journal had (and has) the most valuable audience in America. It may not have the most literati, but there’s plenty of erudition and advanced degrees. Beyond that, it comprises the greatest range of business people—corporate, family, professional, enterprises of all nature—of any forum on the planet. These are the “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” that characterize the idealized U.S. economy. (And, yes, letters came in from non-business folks who fit that description as well.)
It was fulfilling to know that a million such souls were spending a part of their days with our words, and in these cases were taking the trouble to respond with some of their own. They cared enough to write, in the good faith that at least one pair of eyes would see. I am sure that now with email (let alone, social media) many, many more are chiming in. But there was something especially powerful and lasting about the paper missives, even when destined ultimately for the wastebasket.
I understood why the limited inches of letters space in the paper were dominated by the high-and-mighty or others who were addressing a mention in our stories, the institutional officers replying on behalf of an aggrieved constituency, or the professorial expert clarifying a point at issue. My private treasure was the shopowner, plumber or dentist–and many a retiree–who had a relevant bit to add. I wish I still had a few in hand to quote.
Getting back to today’s hand-wringing about the future of the press, I’d say that as much as the Google-Facebook advertising disruption has decimated the revenue stream and subscription dollars have become a life-saver for a select group of news entities, a different omen of survival is the feedback. Nowadays, it’s called “engagement.” Silence is a killer. On the other hand, the in-box of personally composed reactions was and is pay dirt, and any publisher should loudly acknowledge that.
I don’t have the potential audience I once did, but let me say thanks just the same.