It hit me at Jim Wensits’ retirement dinner.
Jim is Carol Schaal’s husband — Carol ‘91M.A. being this magazine’s managing editor and a colleague of mine for 20 years. Jim was retiring from the South Bend Tribune after 41 years. During his career Jim had covered the police beat, politics and government. He had written a country music column for 14 years and had served as an editorial page writer and editor. It was Jim’s scrupulous reporting that helped lead to the arrest and conviction of a local sheriff who had been taking bribes from a South Bend madame.
Two mayors spoke at the roast and reception that preceded the dinner, as did the wife of a former Indiana governor, representing her husband. Joe Donnelly ‘77, ’81J.D., the congressman from this district, appeared on-screen reading a tribute to Jim in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier that day. Senators Evan Bayh and Richard Lugar sent congratulatory letters. Other well-wishers and pranksters poked fun, told tales, and expressed admiration and gratitude for Jim’s service to his community.
Then at dinner, in a room full of newspaper folks with the table conversation turning to the state of journalism today, it hit me. These people, this paper, this grand send-off provided a microcosm of the drama being played out all across America. The news business is in the midst of a radical transformation. The daily newspaper is struggling for its life.
This is not breaking news. It’s hard to imagine anyone so isolated they have not seen what’s been happening in the way people send and receive information. The stunning immediacy. The global reach. The power of television, the Internet, cell phone and satellite technology. It’s clearly a revolution on a universal scale, and it’s impossible to predict the full effects of the metamorphosis now unfolding. But one thing is certain: Newspapers simply can’t keep up, can’t compete, so they’re tying to adapt, to find their niche . . . and the outlook isn’t promising.
We knew this was coming when I was young reporter 35 years ago, crafting stories on a manual typewriter. I was schooled in the nobility of the profession, the ethics and ideals of the calling, the importance of the Fourth Estate to ensure the health of the democracy. Local newspapers—in cities and towns throughout America—have been essential institutions to the citizenry’s common good, knitted into each community’s social fabric as fundamentally as education, government and business.
That’s what hit me the night of Jim’s retirement dinner—not just the passing of a profession but of a cultural institution. I thought about newspaper circulations declining and newsrooms downsizing, about the proliferation of blogs, chat rooms and other zippy ways of swapping information, and about television news, with its emphasis on visuals, sound bytes, shouting matches and pop entertainment. And I thought about the role of reporters to challenge the status quo, the rich and powerful, the role of journalists to mine for truth, to provide sound analysis. I wondered what all is at stake—and not just for those in this line of work but for all of us who depend on the fair, accurate and wise dissemination of news to get along in a very difficult and complex world.
Perhaps it’s just the medium that’s changing, not the message. But I wonder.
Kerry Temple is the editor of Notre Dame Magazine.