Newspaper gatekeepers: a vanishing breed?

Two longtime Boston Globe "inside" journalists bid adieu to the newspaper early this month, collectively leaving behind close to 70 years' worth of reporting, editing, and administering, and taking with them just as many years' worth of institutional and civic memory.

Executive Editor Helen W. Donovan and Deputy Managing Editor Michael J. Larkin, who were joined in their leave-taking by the widely read Business section columnist Steve Bailey, never had their names in lights at the paper; as far as the public was concerned, near anonymity attended them and whatever it was that they did.

But such was not the case inside the Globe building in the evenings where news and feature sections come together in a flood of words and pictures and maps and graphics that are expected to be presented, front page to back page, in a manner that readers will find informative, authoritative, attractive, accessible, and worth the money.

Donovan and Larkin and a cadre of associates sat in the center of this organized chaos night after night and made all the decisions needed to keep production on track to deadline.

In the profession, at least in olden days, Donovan and Larkin were known as "gatekeepers" who wielded "the final pencils" in the newsroom working as chief deputies to the editor-in-chief whose duties rarely allowed him to track the progress of every story and photograph being readied for publication. While much material flowed into the pages without Donovan and Larkin needing to read every last word, in any instance where there was disagreement between editor and reporter or between departmental desks about a story's content or its placement or its headline or anything else, it was mostly at their desks that disagreements were umpired and resolved. And it was they who made the final determinations as to what stories and photos and graphics were published on Page One, and in what place on the layout.

This newsroom setup - a small group of editors, with many years of experience as reporters and editors and photographers and designers sitting at the point where the worldwide news funnel flows into the pressroom and deciding what will be published and what will be set aside - has been standard operating procedure at most major papers since the middle of the 19th century.

Across the fetch of the decades, people have often asked, "Who put these people in charge of what I am given to read?" One reply is that they, the readers, have. Readers buy the paper, and if they do so day after day in significant enough numbers, advertisers will feel it's worth their while to pay for the publication of ads that readers will also pay attention to. Subscription money and the advertisers' dollars thus support the editorial process that produces a daily edition.

In turn this process, and the pairing with it of two separate opinion pages, on which the paper's proprietors and outside contributors and readers' letters offer commentary on matters of the day, provides a marketplace for civic engagement that features a common language, common references, and, ideally, a forum to advance consensus on common goals for the good of the community.

But as with Dylan in the '60s, times they are a-changin'.

Where once, and not so long ago, a member of the public interested in, say, local politics and sports, had to read a newspaper to get the latest credible and detailed information about his interests, today that information - a great deal of it under-reported and vaguely verified, if at all - flows into a citizen's eyes and ears via a plenitude of outlets, among them all-news and all-sports radio, all-news and all-sports cable, and, most importantly, the internet through its many channels, especially the blogosphere, where, in the ideal, everyone gets a say in what's going on.

As newspapers, particularly the major metros, continue to see their advertisers, both classified and large-display clients, leave print for an electronic touting of their goods and services - often on websites owned by the newspaper companies themselves - questions naturally arise about the future of the in-your-hands newspaper as we have known it for some 150 years.

Newspapers have yet to come up with a business model that will ensure they are compensated for the content they supply to the various outlets of the new information age, including their own. While advertising revenue at is growing, it comes nowhere near the amount that Globe print advertising and subscription revenue brings in to support the overall company's news-gathering process.

Think about it: A very high percentage of the news items that you hear or see on Google or Yahoo or Microsoft or on a blogger's site was first reported by a newspaper somewhere, then scooped up for broader circulation by the Associated Press, a journalistic co-operative, from which report Internet outlets extract, like parasites, what they want to pass along to their clients and friends.

Newspapers cannot continue to give away their dearly earned wares and watch their readers and advertisers follow it to the World Wide Web and expect to survive in the long run. And if they don't survive, who or what will serve as the local proprietor of the marketplace of news and ideas - both in reporting and in editorial commentary -- that serves to give a community its commonality of perspective in the civic arena?

The blogosphere, of course, has a countless number of communities, all populated by those with shared interests even if they are not of one mind. Information, or, in many cases, what passes for information, moves back and forth among its members with speed and efficiency. But few blogs feature the original reporting that characterizes the content of the best newspapers. Such reporting and back-up support require considerable time and money and on-the-ground know-how. How many news consumers, how many bloggers have all three at their disposal on a full-time basis? Not many, you can be sure.

Maybe blogs eventually will replace newspapers as a full-service information marketplace that will allow a community of subscribers to cohere for a common purpose, but today, and for the most part, the world of the blogs presents itself as a community of silos of opinion and reaction to what others, mostly newspapers and other print outlets, have reported.

The gatekeeper roles that Helen Donovan and Michael Larkin filled for so many years at The Globe, a newspaper that has been at the center of Boston's information flow for 135 years while earning its readers' respect for its journalistic values, may not exist much longer - except in history books, like the engineers of the 20th Century Limited trains of yesteryear.

Some will feel no loss; they don't want anyone filtering information for them. Others, though, surely will miss the help as we all try to make sense of the complex societies we live in.

Tom Mulvoy is a retired managing editor of The Boston Globe who is a contributing editor at the Reporter.