Have you watched a ‘50s TV show recently? I don’t mean a "classic" such as I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners (two shows I actually can’t stand), but some fare more typical of the age. Say, Leave It to Beaver. OMG. How awful those shows were! It’s not just the relentless happiness of every single character or the unremarked assumption of whiteness. It’s that these were really, really bad shows. How could they think that the Beaver putting too much detergent into the washing machine could really fill a half hour? Not to put too fine a point on it, these shows were Not Funny. Not a chuckle. Not a smile. If you have any doubt about that, compare them to any rerun of Malcolm in the Middle. Malcolm is the anti-Beaver. It’s all problems all the time. And, most important, it’s funny. Not amusing. Not pretend funny. It’s actually funny.
If you don’t like Malcolm, then compare whatever show currently on the air that you find funny with Leave It to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet or December Bride.
Even after performing this exercise and recognizing just how bad those ’50s sitcoms were, you probably feel a little affection for them. They remind you of simpler times. We (well, where the "we" includes those old enough to remember them) think of them as quaint. Our affection is real but condescending. For we liked those awful shows. You can only shake your head in wonder at how much more sophisticated we are now.
That attitude of wonder and condescension is what our attitude toward the news media will be in 10 or 20 years.
We will look back and be amazed that we were ever content with having a handful of newspapers, just as we used to have only three networks.
We’ll chuckle at how newspapers struggled to figure out what deserved to go on the front page. We’ll thumb through old front pages and chuckle at how the urge to inform struggled with the urge to sell papers, creating a weird mélange of stories that ranged from the titanic to the trivial, all within one square meter. Most of all, we’ll be amazed that we took the front page seriously, as if it really did reflect the day’s most important issues.
We’ll shake our heads at the Old Days when everyone got the same front page. No wonder front pages were so irrelevant to each of us in our particularity. And the notion that there was a "right" ordering of the stories? We’ll pause for a moment in sympathy at the plight into which this assumption plunged editors.
We’ll pick up one of the old papers at the museum, and we’ll comment on how light it is. And most of it was ads! How could we seriously think we could fit the world’s events into so few pages? And we thought newspapers, or 30-minute news broadcasts, kept us well informed. How quaint we were!
Then we’ll notice the paternalistic, comforting tone articles had simply because they were printed and thus couldn’t link out to other sources. They had to try to tell us everything we need to know about a topic, as if that were possible ... heck, as if topics were possible! The very fact that the newspaper divides itself into "stories" is already as great a simplification as the family dynamics in Father Knows Best.
And just as we notice that ‘50s families all seem cut from the same cloth (The Honeymooners excepted), we’ll be amazed that we were ever satisfied with the incredibly narrow slice of the world shown to us in today’s newspapers. Africa gets less space than Lindsay Lohan. How could we ever have thought that that was representative of our world?
There are, of course, important disanalogies between The Donna Reed Show and The Washington Post. Today’s newspapers, of course, exhibit far more intelligence, curiosity and commitment than ‘50s sitcoms. It’d be absurd to even compare them along those lines. It’s not the skill or dedication of newspaper staffers that limits them. It’s the medium. It’s paper. Nor are we by any means guaranteed that what we’ll get instead of paper-based papers—and no one yet knows what that will be—will be better. Nevertheless, the mere fact that news will be digital and linked will make today’s papers look as limited by their medium as a staticy rerun of My Little Margie.