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While dying, Editor & Publisher taught journalism how to live

Editor & Publisher, the journalism magazine that was more recently a powerful force on the Web, died today at the ripe old age of 125.

Its passing was not completely unexpected; this was a publication that has largely flourished in the now comatose format of magazines, writing about the terminally ill business of newspapers, dependent on dollars from the morally wounded world of traditional advertising, including the nearly extinct paid classified ads. Like any old coot that lives into its 100s and had a hell of a good time doing it, it's kind of a miracle that the damn thing lasted this long.

For much of today, "Editor & Publisher" was a top trending topic on Twitter -- ironically, a symbol of both its impact and of the massive technological changes that conspired to kill it. While I greatly mourn E&P's passing, I want to call attention to the splendor of its final years, when it died like a supernova, with a great burst of energy.

It's complicated to write about Editor & Publisher because there were essentially two E&Ps. The first one is fondly remembered by those in the newspaper business who remember when job openings were as plentiful as prairie buffalo used to be, or at least that's how we remember things. Its classified ads were the place for young reporters seeking jobs in exotic, faraway locales, or at least daydreaming about them before the next school board meeting to cover. I remember this magazine from my early days in the business in the 1980s, well-done but a bit on the staid side, and more Publisher than Editor, especially when compared to the flashier mags aimed more at the Woodstein generation of young reporters, like Columbia Journalism Review.

Then in 2002, something happened that changed everything. The Internet age was reaching full flower, and the newspaper business was accelerating, Thelma-and-Louise-like, toward the abyss, just not yet staring over the very edge. That year, Editor & Publisher turned its new editor, the man who would become its last editor, Greg Mitchell, and the seeds of a revolution were quietly planted.

There was already talk of "journalism reform" in the air in the early 2000s, but most of it was just that -- talk, daydreams of pony-tailed venture capitalists riding to the rescue and funding sleek Web sites with lots of multimedia bells and whistles, even as the real-life world of newspapers plodded along trying to figure out who was left to make the cop calls that night. No one ever dreamed that salvation of the real passionate art of journalism would be a then-55-year veteran, the former legendary editor of the legendary (redundancy intended) 1970s rock magazine Crawdaddy, or that he would be aided by a tiny staff of like-minded pros like Joe Strupp and Jennifer Saba or that his main vehicle would be a creaky Web page which, to be honest, at times seems as far removed in user friendliness from a slick 21st Century Internet site as your kid's Xbox is removed from Atari's Pong.

The way that Greg Mitchell's Editor & Publisher lit their flashlight to show a path for journalism out of that abyss was stunning in its simplicity. They didn't spend hours at power lunches, fretting about making sure every piece was inoffensively 50-50 balanced or any other such distraction. They got up in the morning, went to their office in Manhattan, and they

With a small staff and with so many problems in the world of journalism, E&P had a remarkable knack for homing in on, and reporting the heck out of, the few things that were most important, which were not pageviews and clickthroughs, but old-fashioned journalism that was both highly ethical and highly skeptical. They practiced it that way themselves, and they often went after the mainstream media charlatans who did not.

Here's how Mitchell explained his philosophy in journalism in 2004, that the goal was that:

"all our coverage on all subjects—is not to be partisan or not to be left or right or anything like that. But we believe in the—what should be the main principle of journalism, besides being accurate and fair, is to be skeptical—to raise questions, to not take what officials say as the gospel truth—unless it's really proven—if there's documents."

That seems obvious enough, yet upon his 2002 arrival the world of journalism was turned upside down by the looming war in Iraq, by news orgs that put every presidential pronouncement on Page A1 but buried reality-based skeptics on Page A16 while ignoring both large-scale protests and the lethally wrong suggestion that Saddam Hussein somehow had something to do with 9/11. Almost alone at times, Mitchell and E&P reported critically on the rush to war and on U.S. journalism's helplessness under that stampede

On January 23, 2003, at the height of the media bandwagon, Mitchell wrote a column entitled "On the War Path." In it, an array of well-known voices, like the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, the Boston Globe's Mark Jurkowitz, Arianna Huffington and Richard Reeves voice a host of misgivings that were getting little play at the time: Why was there such little reporting both of the anti-war protests and the deep but quieter misgivings shared by millions of Americans, of why we were attacking Iraq but not North Korea or whether the president's anger at Saddam was personal? Much of Mitchell's critical and insightful writing can be found in his 2008 book on the war, called "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq."

When Colin Powell gave his infamous presentation to the United Nations that winter on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction -- hailed at the time, largely discredited now -- E&P wrote an article questioning both inconsistencies as well as the lack of media skepticism. Mitchell explained later.

 Now little Editor and Publisher -- the next day and the days beyond that -- published stories on our website raising those very questions. It didn't take hindsight. It didn't take a huge staff. It just took a few journalists who were acting on the principles of journalism -- To be skeptical. And if we, little Editor and Publisher, could point out that the case had really not been made or needed to be proven, it made us wonder why some of the bigger outlets just sort of rolled over.

And Mitchell and his staff didn't let up, even -- especially, in fact -- after President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier with the sign, "Mission Accomplished." They focused intensively on suicides and other unexplained deaths in Iraq, highlighting articles from small-town papers that would have never received national attention if not for the E&P crew. When an Associated Press photographer captured on film the combat death of an American soldier in Afghanistan, it was E&P alone that asked editors uncomfortable questions about running the photo or not running it. That was what Editor & Publisher was all about in its final years, asking tough questions. Journalism dying? Not as long as Mitchell and his crew had access to nothing more than a notebook and a keyboard.

They just did it.

And while skeptical coverage of Iraq -- and of the coverage of Iraq -- was arguably E&P's mostly valuable contribution to the American dialogue, it was far from its only hallmark. The publication aggressively dealt with the ethical missteps of big media, the kind of things that many newsrooms would gladly sweep under a rug, and it routinely produced some of the best long take-out articles on real journalism reform, on what works and what doesn't, and why. The main Web site was always low-tech, but in the final months they launched an outstanding blog, the E&P Pub, and Mitchell even became one of the top Twitter users in the media world. And they kept it up until the bitter end; today, after the pending shutdown of the magazine and its related Web sites was announced, there was Joe Strupp with a new article, grilling the Washington Post op-ed editor on why the newspaper published a fact-challenged piece on climate change by Sarah Palin.

It's a sad day, but in a strange way the death of Editor & Publisher gives me hope for the future of journalism. Because they showed us a blueprint, that size or technology is overrated, that a half-dozen people can make a difference just by asking the right questions and by not backing down. And if Greg Mitchell and the others could accomplish this at a small, shrinking trade publication, then I know that it can happen again and will happen again, somewhere else and in some other format -- that no-holds-barred journalism is possible even on these weird little newfangled tablets or whatever.

Because in the remarkable way that they died, Editor & Publisher showed the rest of journalism how to live.