Say goodbye. (from WallyG’s flickr, CC Licensed)
Ah yes, the lament for newspapers. I came across an example of one from the NY Times, written (characteristically) by Timothy Egan, a Times writer with a full time job and a Pulitzer – which sums up many of the fears and potential news-y types see in the transforming newsmedia environment.
Right off the bat, there’s pulling at the heartstrings of those who believe in American democracy. A Tommy J quote. A call to an informed citizenry. All the high-notes of any eulogy to a lost age of democracy. Too bad all this ignores the history (recent and less-recent) of the newspaper industry and its connection to democracy.
Many papers rely on a monopolistic domination of particular media markets, creating ‘one-paper’ towns and acting as gatekeepers limiting the diverse range of political voices that make up a city. You can find any number of examples supporting this: my hometown of Austin Texas has one regular daily, the Austin-American Statesman, that managed to endorse Bush in a liberal town twice, and fail to cover any of the incredible activist activity i know is going on in Austin, giving a fine-and-rosy picture of political life in the midst of a wave of development/gentrification and increased police violence.
Almost all papers have a vested interest in real estate growth, either through ad revenue from developers or potential increased subscriptions from new arrivals. Many reporters work closely with government officials on a daily basis, requiring a cozy relationship to keep the scoops coming, meaning that they’re unlikely to open up serious criticism of government when the chips are down. Corporate criticism is likely to be even more half-hearted. (The history of America’s ‘paper of record’ (The New York Times) is no better – read Manufacturing Consent for an exhaustive study on the reporting biases of the Gray Lady). This article’s lament of reporters who ‘brought to life the daily narrative of a city’ is so much claptrap considering the systemic interests many have in writing a story their advertisers and editors would like.
The second half of the article does raise some interesting points however. According to the author, online newspaper readership has increased the total number of people who rely on newspapers for their daily news. Despite this ad revenue is down, and reporters continue losing their jobs. Here’s where we get to Egan’s real problem:
“In its present form, and even in best-case projections, the Web format will never generate enough money to keep viable reporting staffs afloat at some of the nation’s biggest papers.”
Now we know the issue: the web will signal the downfall of writers like himself, those who report for reporting’s sake, career journalists. His concern is that without this cadre of career merely writers, we will lose the watchdog of democracy – a task that the “gossip, political spin and original insight on sites like the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post” cannot take on. This type of dismissive attitude towards new journalism echoes what I called ‘civic guilt’ in another post – its reactive chiding that revels in the impotence of that which it defends with even more impotent rhetoric.
Yes, in the future, we may not have full time reporters. That does not mean we won’t have real journalism – it just means the people writing will have to be something other than merely reporters (who, despite “rubbing shoulders with a cop, a defense attorney or a distressed family in a Red Cross shelter” often fall into their own absurd or asinine habits that keep them from being effective). More likely we will have savants and celebrity, either people working, living then writing about it from the grounded perspective of an area-specific Savant (see Atlantic Yards Report or Brownstoner for New York examples), or folks who, capitalize on their name or style to build readership (Mr. Egan is a minor example, also see any of the Village Voice‘s main staff writers, or Huffington Post and Drudge Report, which are named after people for a telling reason). The role of the new newspaper will be to sort the wheat from the chaff, identifying developing stories from a variety of sources, then providing depth and commentary to what has already been written to direct traffic to your site versus others.
As with voting, it is not up to us to ‘save the press.’ It is up to newspapers to save themselves by developing the style and particular substance suited to the new media environment.