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We Need Heroes in American Journalism

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In the fall of 1995, I ventured out on my first full-time academic position. I had moved from Washington, DC to an Our Town-like village in New Hampshire called Henniker, still known as "the only Henniker on earth." Then teaching political science at New England College, I waxed nostalgic for my favorite newspaper, the Washington Post.

I had spent all my graduate school years in Washington and treasured the sound of the morning paper hitting the back steps of my basement apartment. It was as regular a feature of my daily living as the sound of the people living upstairs. In New Hampshire there was silence every morning as I could not fathom replacing the venerable Post with the Concord Monitor or Manchester Union-Leader.

The Washington Post was the first newspaper to publish my editorials. I met one of my dearest lifelong friends, Patricia Keegan of Washington International magazine, when she called me out of the blue after reading one of my editorials in the Post. The letters page was functioning just as it was supposed to -- start a conversation, forge a dialogue, and give the public a chance to air its issues in a forum devoted to us. This included the writings of plenty of non-professional journalists like myself.

Late in the fall semester, I decided that something needed to be done. I penned a note straight to the top: Katherine Graham of the Washington Post Co. I described a serious illness from which I was suffering, notably Washington Post Withdrawal Syndrome. Could she possibly help me? Perhaps go national and alleviate my longing.

Within a week or so I received my answer.

I am so pleased to receive your nice and funny letter about the need for the Post. The fact is, we just can't go national without creating a whole new product and distribution system, much as we'd like to. Our economy is local. Therefore the paper is big and heavy -- expensive to mail and late to arrive. It doesn't pay us or our local advertisers to distribute in Henniker, New Hampshire. The Times has a larger national advertising base and is less local in news and advertising. In short, we can't get the Post to you, much as we'd like to. You might try the Weekly. People seem to really like it. At least it's a "fix" for your serious and much to be desired communications disorder. --Katharine Graham

In 1998, Katharine Graham won the Pulitzer for her autobiography, Personal History. She died in 2001.

It's not uncommon these days to read the headlines about the woeful state of American journalism in general and the newspaper in particular. At this year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, our panel debated whether or not it was a good thing to see all the traditional media wither on the vine while all of us tweeted, posted, blogged, and loaded our vanity media to YouTube. The consensus was to let a lot of the mainstream media die their slow and painful death. And then we remembered we were at the LAT Book Festival and said we didn't really mean it!

Truth is, we need heroes in American journalism, and I'm less than optimistic that my journalistic hero is going to be a Facebook friend or someone I'm following on Twitter.

Katharine Graham's great friend was the billionaire investor Warren Buffett. A former newsboy with a paper route, Buffett looked at newspapers like the Washington Post, where he still has a large holding, as a sound investment. Not anymore. At his Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting this weekend he announced that the outlook for newspapers is dismal. He said, "For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price."

Graham's Washington Post newspaper was ground zero for the investigation of the Watergate scandal. It produced the daring duo Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, a team that published the details of a presidency run amuck. Those two journalists in turn inspired thousands of young people to choose journalism as a profession devoted to the truth and keeping government honest.

On that last day of the last newspaper, we may cluck cluck and tsk tsk about our collective memory loss. By then we'll have our newspaper museums to remind us of what we once valued. And I will still long for that sound of the newspaper hitting my back steps.