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Making sense of a bygone year is tricky business, sometimes akin to identifying faces on a bullet train as it speeds past. Typically, so much news and information is jammed into a given week that we literally need to go through the year’s issues to remember exactly what we have so recently experienced. And there are other hazards. Two years ago in its year-end issue, Legal Times (and for the record, we weren’t alone in this) took up a great deal of real estate yakking about the concept of a permanent Republican majority and the idea of a GOP hegemony dominating not only America, but the world, for years to come. I believe that the most appropriate response to that now is: Whoops. But you probably don’t remember that — and that’s a good thing. Newspapers are like milk, cheese, or Budweiser — they have freshness dates. Luckily, we don’t warrant that our observations will stand the test of time. We know, as our readers do, that history won’t always prove us right. Comparing newspapers with commodities is relevant in another way. The dominant offstage drama in the media this year has been stockholder pressure on newspapers owned by public companies to produce better returns. This has sparked a debate about whether newspapers are simple capitalistic consumables, no different than the aforementioned milk or beer, or whether they occupy a higher plane in our society as a sort of public utility that exists for the betterment of the community as a whole. I think the exercise in which we engaged to put together this issue provides part of the answer. In looking back over the year, we have, again, stumbled upon the basic mission of newspapers: They chronicle. Someone has to provide the record. Someone has to keep score, keep track, make sense of events, provide the proper context. And beyond that, someone simply needs to mark the passages, the comings and goings, the wins and losses — and hopefully do so with a knowing voice. If you suspect this is a veiled, reactionary attack on the Internet as the mother ship of all news and information, you’re fairly dead on. Just as there is a value in the work a newspaper does, there is a value in the form that a newspaper takes. The pure tangibility of the newspaper is what makes it possible to flip from day to day or week to week and acquire that sense of the passage of time and the progression of human events. Anyone who’s been fascinated by peering at old newspaper headlines from the 20th century can attest that there’s a narrative being built somewhere in there. Try going to any news site and developing a similar chronology from scratch. The net has its role, but a Web site is blackboard that is written on and wiped away every day. So a plea for the New Year. Hold this in your hands and feel the weight of the pages and the ink brushing against your fingertips. This is our living history. And the way things are headed in this business, it could soon be only a memory.
James Oliphant is editor in chief of Legal Times , and can be contacted at [email protected].

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