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Trying to remember newspapers

Here endeth the year in which newspapers as we knew them were declared more or less dead.

Some cling to the hope the report was premature, a Twain-like overstatement as it were.

And yet, if newspapers were animals, we would be putting down many of them. A few (like this one) operate in niches where the demands and needs of a certain readership allow them to gain strength and grow.

But dead or alive, the mourning continues because, even if still living, many newspapers arrive on front porches these days as airy skeletons, light enough to levitate.

As the death throes intensify, consumers may begin to forget what a newspaper should do. They settle for what’s there.

The gold standard

For others, the diehard true believers, there remains The New York Times. The paper has grave financial concerns, to be sure, and it still seems to have no answers for the questions raised by the World Wide Web.

It’s had to lay off staff to fend off creditors, but it can still afford masterful reporters who are specialists in a variety of governmental, business and sports specialties.

It’s been pilloried by the right and the left as “establishment” or “liberal,” but it remains the gold standard. It finds itself in the ironic position of providing content for the Web, which wins away readers and erodes advertising income.

Its critics on the left have no compunction about citing its investigations into regulatory lapses or corporate corruption. But the publication overall is said to be in thrall to political elites.

Some of this criticism is, no doubt, valid. The Times has conceded as much. Few publications have confessed sins as forthrightly. Few have opened themselves to the kind of in-house criticism now available every Sunday in The Times.

Has its donning of the hair shirt helped? For those who applaud high standards, yes. Others have chosen to see its apologies as proof of failure or bias.

An issue of greatness

And yet, papers like the one published last Sunday were breathtaking examples of the Times’ reach, its good editorial thinking and its unique ability to inform.

In a year-end magazine feature, it offered profiles of men and women whose courage changed the world or whose idiosyncrasies enriched it:

Crystal Lee Sutton, the real life Norma Rae, who brazened unions into Southern textile mills; a man in tailored suits who brought elegance to the streets of New York, selling slicers and dicers; a doctor who discovered but could not confirm the real cause of stomach ulcers but had no bitterness when two other scientists won the Nobel Prize for that finding; and Robert Novak, the columnist whose inveterate skepticism made him a scourge of Washington long before his outing of Valerie Plame drew much-deserved scorn.

On its editorial page, the newspaper offered an easy-to-digest report on the House and Senate versions of health care reform, carefully laying out which aspects of each it thought should be accepted by the other as the bills go to conference committee.

In sports, Bill Rhoden chronicled the current life of Michael Vick, the football player who spent 19 months in jail for his role in a dog-fighting ring.

Vick, honored by his teammates with a “courage” award, seems to have changed his life. No one, he said, has been through what he’s been through. Not so, said Rhoden. A Jacksonville Jaguars player, hit with apparently random gunfire, lost a leg and suffered paralysis. He counsels kids now on the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions.

The newspaper offered an entire section of the best news photographs of 2009.

It has a robust travel section. And a book section. Four volumes of poetry were reviewed. There was a biography of Molly Ivins, the hilarious, lampooning Texan who wrote for The Times and other publications. Where else can we expect to see such work examined?

There are those who say it’s too late to get the newspaper toothpaste back in the tube. Worse, we may be forgetting what a really good brand of this toothpaste tastes like.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.