By Alex Green, Guest Columnist
As I write this piece, the fate of The Boston Globe remains uncertain, but early on this Monday morning I have taken these quiet hours to ask myself why I feel that the survival of The Globe sets it apart from other major companies that are failing, and it seems department stores are crucial to that story. My store is in an old department store building, just a block from a building where an old department store once was, and across the street from where another was. Waltham was once a destination for hundreds of miles just like the largest malls in America were in the 1990s. When the department stores closed, the heart of the city was devastated and the community was sent wandering for a sense of itself.
In the early twentieth century, Boston area department stores were among the first companies to use massive newspaper advertising campaigns to great success. With the exception of the few subscriber supported papers, they ushered in the transition from politically funded media to advertising and so-called "mass-media". As with most stakeholders and investors, they used their investments to influence the news, as the Jordan Marsh department stores did in downtown Boston in order to skirt major building codes in 1910.
Steadily advertisers and large companies became more integral to the survival of newspapers. At the same time the world wars, Great Depression, and Cold War resulted in massive improvements in the standard of living in America and literacy increased at an equally rapid pace. The literacy of the American public did not keep newspapers wholly honest, but it did check the influence of advertisers enough to allow a nominally independent press to survive, even if only on a case by case basis. In the process newspaper journalism gave us some of the greatest books in our nation's history, from Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" to the Vietnam masterpiece "Dispatches" to Dexter Filkin's epic Iraq War piece "The Forever War" last year.
Changes in taste and preference laid waste to department stores, and changes of necessity will spell the end of malls as we know them, but as they come and go we never discuss the end of retail. The urgent voices who believe that honest electronic journalism can exist at present, without the support of newspapers and any formal standards of print media, are expressing a sentiment that is dangerous for the survival of a democracy.
Innovation is like a greedy child, its will and appetite outpacing its emotional maturity. So it is that we have not yet begun to think seriously about the meaning and purpose of Internet media, and in the absence of any understanding its purveyors and their work are more subject to the pernicious will of those who wield political power than they recognize. In a country where we have been encouraged to go shopping after terrorist attacks, we have grown too accustomed to the idea that change requires the wholesale eradication of older institutions. The Boston Globe is not the Chrysler Corporation. It has been beset upon by the vicissitudes of a vicious and corrupting economic structure that has constrained its ability to adapt and is now demanding its death for totemic reasons veiled in the language of monetary concern. Too few citizens in America have access to the Internet in a day, and few have the time for television news, but I cannot find a bar or cafe in Boston that does not have a newspaper sitting out.
We must find a new vision for The Boston Globe and it may be that someday it will be entirely electronic, but if we cede it with needless urgency and without a fight, we lose another potential source for civil adversarial discourse and we set adrift the foundation of our republic. We are caught between the financial undercurrents of the Declaration of Independence, written by very wealthy men, and the stark beauty and power of the First Amendment, demanded by the farmers, citizens, and workers of this nation. The Boston Globe is a unique institution in a city which needs multiple newspapers. In an age where blogging is a synonym for masquerade and few people state their name alongside their declarations, The Globe and its imperfections are crucial, if not solely so that we have a byline to guide where we throw our tomatoes and a reporter who can respond. We use the word accountability. We say it too often. We are accountable for the survival of this newspaper even if we did not bring it to its knees. We must save the Boston Globe.
Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books and editor of Back Pages Publishers, both located on Moody Street in Waltham.