Fallows on Newspapers

James Fallows has the following interesting observation on re-acquainting himself with the United States after years of mostly living in China:

Instead what I notice is the change within the papers I’d read before. The NYT, for all its travails, is a recognizable version of the publication I’d previously known. Personality, depth, world-view, tone. The poor Washington Post is not. Laying off — that is, buying out — so many reporters who knew so much about their topics has had a more profound effect than I would have guessed. (Locus classicus: Tom Ricks on defense.) And the resulting paper seem more obviously desperate to try anything that will draw attention in this new age.

To me, that was the real meaning of the unfortunate recent “Mouthpiece Theatercommotion that has accompanied my re-introduction to the Post. (And for which Chris Cillizza wrote a gracious apology.) Not the flap over the final “bitch” episode but the existence of the thing at all. Experimentation is great and necessary in journalism, always and especially now; mistakes are a natural price of that; and everyone in every field needs to make his or her work as entertaining and attractive as it can be. But trying to compete for attention on sheer yuks is a step toward the brink. “Real” entertainment will always be more entertaining — that’s how it got the name. Anyone hungry for more on this theme is invited to check out the whole chapter on the death-spiral of infotainment in Breaking the News.

That all seems about right to me. It’s also worth noting that though Ricks’ departure from the Post certainly counts as a major loss to that organization, that it’s not as if Ricks or his insights has vanished from the planet. The Washington Post Company owns Foreign Policy now which boasts an excellent website that includes a really good blog by Tom Ricks. He’s also a senior fellow at the influential Center for a New American Security think tank and still producing excellent, well-regarded, and commercially successful books. And thanks to the Internet, all kinds of people around the world who are interested in defense issues can read what Ricks has to say, which really wasn’t the case 15 years ago.