It's a great day for American newspapers. For the first time since 1978, a brand new metropolitan daily appeared this morning on New York newsstands.
And the best part? This newspaper, the New York Sun, grew out of a one-man Web site. We've suffered six years of whining from the journalistic gatekeepers about the ethical quagmire of the populist Internet or whatever. Yet a humble Web site has given birth to a real daily, on real newsprint. You can hold it, you can spill coffee on it, you can leave it on the train for somebody else to read.
In June of 2000, Brooklyn journalist Ira Stoll started SmarterTimes.com, a little site with a big mission: to expose the errors and bias of the New York Times. The NYT is an excellent newspaper in a city full of excellent newspapers — the New York Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, etc. But as the required paper for opinion makers and policy wonks and high-end consumers from Martha's Vineyard to Santa Monica, it needed a watchdog. Stoll assigned himself that position and soon had thousands of readers.
His online work got the attention of media mogul Conrad Black and ten New York investors. Today, the New York Sun rolled off the presses. Former Wall Street Journal staffer Seth Lipsky is editor. Stoll is managing editor.
When it comes to media, more is better. Every journalist and pundit should rejoice. Will they?
Probably not. Professional journalists are notoriously territorial, especially the Modern Media Critics. Already, the obituaries are being written for the New York Sun. After all, it's unseemly to sound like a cheerleader ... unless you're cheering for a talking-head television show like "Nightline."
I'm a newspaper fanatic. The mere rumor of a new paper fills me with idiot glee. A couple years ago, Hearst Corp. bought the San Francisco Chronicle and handed the San Francisco Examiner to a family publishing business. Before the Justice Department even approved the deal, I was planning my move back to gloomy San Francisco. Would've been a wonderful chance to make a fun newspaper in a goofy town. I wrote a column applying for the job, whatever the job might be. Like Sinatra sang, I had high hopes.
But the new Examiner was a disappointment. It was sloppy, thin, amateurish and plagued by advertising, editorial and distribution troubles. The Web version was even more of a letdown: most of the morning paper can't be seen online until 4 p.m.
That's no way to do it. The fun way to start a newspaper is to put the energy of online renegades onto the printed page. (As I type this, it's 5 a.m. in Manhattan. Where's the online version of the New York Sun? Will it be there when I wake up in a few hours?)
Why do curious people love these Web logs? It's all about voice and honesty. A blogger like Glenn Reynolds or Tim Blair doesn't hide behind a mask of phony objectivity. They say what they think and they link to the relevant sources. They answer their critics and quickly correct their mistakes.
The best bloggers know how to write, but they also know how to amuse and outrage. They know how to be serious without being boring, and know there's nothing wrong with just being funny. They're human, just like the great newspaper columnists we took for granted before they all died, never to be replaced. When's the last time you read a newspaper column (other than Dave Barry or James Lileks) and thought, "Sure would like to meet that writer"?
Every few days, I find another Web writer I want to meet at the neighborhood bar. They pop up like mushrooms. So many smart people writing incisive and clever online columns. Shouldn't they be in the paper? Wouldn't we buy newspapers that didn't make us feel like vomiting?
As co-founder of the L.A. Examiner — a Web site that tries to cover what the Los Angeles Times ignores (which is just about everything that happens in Southern California) — I've got a personal interest in these amateur online ventures leading to real-life newspapers. Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, wants to start a good hometown paper. Even though I'm a poor free-lance journalist, this week I'll be meeting with Riordan to talk about this new paper. Maybe he'll realize I'm just a dumb hillbilly with a lot of romantic ideals. We'll see.
Whatever happens, just the fact that we're talking about a new L.A. paper adds to the evidence that passionate little Web sites can make a difference and mix things up. Should our former mayor decide to launch this thing, that'll mean the two largest American cities get new voices at the newsstand. And I'll have the only job I've ever wanted. Here in Los Angeles, it's stylish to act like you don't love this city. I've never been stylish.
What about your local paper? Is it a soulless, gutless thing published by some out-of-town media conglomerate? Does reading it push you into a murderous rage?
Then you need a Web log. It's easy, cheap and a lot more productive than yelling at the dog. Stay focused, use spell-check and post something every day. You might find a lot of your fellow citizens appreciate the effort. And maybe you'll end up working for — or starting — a new hometown paper.
Nothing in the First Amendment says a newspaper has to be lame. And nothing in the Constitution requires a reporter to be accredited by some university journalism department. So go on...become a reporter. Get a blog. We're supposed to have a Free Press in this country.
Ken Layne types from a shack behind his Los Angeles home. The author of trashy thrillers such as Dot.Con and the upcoming Space Critters, he has written and edited for a variety of news outfits including Information Week, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, UPI and Mother Jones. Since the Enron-like collapse of his Web paper, Tabloid.net, in 1999, he has been posting commentary to KenLayne.com.