Toward post-largesse journalism

My sources in Santa Barbara tell me “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times”, a new documentary by Peter Jones, is an amazing piece of work — partly because of its quality as a picture, but especially because of its subject: the brilliant and dysfunctional Otis and Chandler families, who did more to build Los Angeles than Hollywood or even William Mulholland (he of Chinatown and Cadillac Desert).

They did it with a newspaper: The Los Angeles Times.

I’ll leave the details up to Lisa Knox Burns (in Edhat), The Independent, Patrick Goldstein (of the LATimes), Collier Grimm, Kevin Roderick, the California Documentary Project, Nikki Finke, Kristopher Tapley, ThompsonOnHollywood (in Variety) and others.

What matters is that the story of a great newspaper was the story of a family.

So also are the stories of nearly all the great newspapers in the U.S. You can’t visit the subject of daily newspaper journalism without paying respect, if not homage, to the Ochs and Sulzbergers, the Chandlers, the Annenbergs, the Loebs, the McCormicks, the Gannetts, the Grahams, the Knights, the McClatchys, the Storkes.

These people at their best weren’t in it just for the money, or even the influence (though both were serious motivators). They were in it for the good of their cities. They carried out a public service. They ran great civic institutions that served both public and private interests.

Most of those families have sold out or died off. A few remain, but the gig is mostly up. Papers will remain, in some form, but as companions to new civic institutions, also with charters that combine public responsibilities and private ambitions. These institutions are only starting to be built.

Newspaper Families were creatures of the Industrial Age during a peak that lasted so long we might call it a plateau. As that age phases out, and the Information Age phases in, it’s fair to say we won’t be seeing the likes of these families again. Certainly not as a class, or a category.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that we can’t leave the role of these families out of any consideration, much less study, of the Great Institution of Daily Journalism. They were involved.

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