Figuring out what to do about the death of newspapers has become nearly a full-time job for many people–people who would much rather be putting out newspapers. Perhaps there will be a newspaper in the future that will be about nothing but the future of newspapers.
In the meantime, we might take comfort from an idea put forth by “Langley Collyer”–the version imagined by E.L. Doctorow in his novel Homer & Langley, not the historical one. Doctorow’s Langley is enamored of a concept he has invented called the Theory of Replacements. As his brother (and Boswell), Homer, explains: “Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation.” Time, Langley has told him, “advances through us as we replace ourselves to fill the slots,” and this theory has spurred him to conceive an “ultimate newspaper,” which contains within it categories for every imaginable human event. (He has collected stacks and stacks of newspapers in support of this effort.) Langley’s ambition is to “fix American life finally in one edition,” to create an “eternally current dateless newspaper.”
Well, that would be something. And it just might work on the Internet, too, if you could find a way to fund the research. Goodness knows, neither Homer nor Langley had enough money, energy or, in the end, sanity, to pull it off. But as Jerome Charyn wrote in a perceptive review in the Wall Street Journal, “In the end, Langley’s vast, mercurial newspaper can be seen as a reflection of Mr. Doctorow’s own work–his writing career has often seemed like a long, slippery quest to pin down the American story, and the American language, preserving it in one eternal edition.” The Collyer brothers, Charyn smartly observes, are “mirrors of himself–poet and archivist, creator and destroyer, whose words remain a ghostly presence in readers’ minds.”
One scholar has speculated that the final American newspaper will appear on someone’s doorstep in 2043. Philip Roth recently told Tina Brown in an interview for the Daily Beast that he could not imagine the novel lasting as a significant cultural entity for more than, say, the next twenty-five years. Let’s hope this is personal pessimism rather than actual prediction speaking. But in the meantime, let’s be grateful that we have Langley’s concept to remind us why we need newspapers in the first place. They help make humans of us, reminding us of our connections not only to one another but to our pasts and what remains of our future.
And who knows what Homer and Langley might have come up with if, indeed, they had had the Internet. Either they (and their author) would have invented something new and marvelous, or else found some other form of junk under which to bury themselves, which unfortunately is pretty much where we stand in our quest to find the future of newspapers.