Posted by: coloradokiwi | April 28, 2009

The Death of the Newspaper Could Mean the Rise of Journalism

It is telling that in all the recent coverage of the imminent death of newspapers, one would be hard pressed to use the expression “much ink has been spilled”.   Certainly some of the sturm and drang among industry watchers is a concern over the allegation that newspapers serve a vital function in a healthy democracy:  to keep the public informed and to shed light on the doings of government and business.  Without newspapers, they argue, how will democracy survive?

Well, first of all, the elephant in the room must be addressed:  to what extent have newspapers been providing this service anyway?  Leaving aside how nearly everyone dropped the ball on big stories like the lead up to the Iraq War, I wonder how important it is to the lifeblood of democracy to have Sunday funnies, the crossword, and sections on style, eating, movies, and  so on.  But okay, let’s compare apples to apples and just talk about the hard news sections for a moment.  Undoubtedly, newspapers provided an economic model whereby the most expensive and vital kinds of journalism in the public interest could propser—after all, it takes money to do real investigative reporting as well as sending people to various locales to get on sight reporting.  It is a little unclear how Huffington Post, say, would be able to field liveblogging from a war zone.  This is not to say, of course, that it would be impossible, just that the economics of this have yet to be fully realized (and it’s possible that there is no economics to this, at least according to news-oriented sites as we know it).

However, to say newspapers are vital to a healthy democracy should be an absurd statement on its face to anyone who’s been paying attention.  Most of the best reporting, opining, and general coverage of everything from sports to politics is already done on blogs and other alternative news sites, as this post over at Daily Kos capably demonstrates.  It’s true that our founding fathers were adamant that newspapers were vital to democracy.  However, it is not newspapers as objects that are vital to democracy, it is what newspapers provide:  information.  In drawing on the thoughts of our forebears, they confuse the medium for the message.  In fact, arguably citizen journos can do muckraking better, because while their resources may be more scarce, they are also not beholden to editorial considerations, like, for instance, producing embarrassing reports about the company that owns the newspaper.  

So what is really bothering people in the industry, particularly if they are owners of newspapers, is not that alternative news sites are popping up, but that they have no means of capitalizing on this situation.  In other words, you can’t make money on news any more (at least, not REAL money).  Therefore what the industry hissy fit is really about is this:  the owners of the means of production are being cut out of the deal; as a corollary, the labor of their employees (journalists) can no longer be exploited because increasingly that labor is no longer a market commodity, since it’s being given away for free.  Newspaper owners can no longer make money in this industry without being producers themselves.  In fact, real producers out there make money through networks and websense ads and the like.  They may or may not make money off of their efforts, and they will almost certainly not be millionaires.   The blog model is a relatively good one for a quality writer/researcher/expert/opinionator. It is a very poor one for a manager or owner. 

Further, the demise of newspapers is merely the latest and most notorious victim in a long series of middle-men who have been taken down by the internet, for a newspaper is after all really only  a middle man:  linking readers to information, and advertisers to consumers.  Like other successful middle men, it has been able to add value to its service (a good example of this kind of middle man is a travel agent, among the first to suffer in the age of the internet, who were after all able to put together travel packages).  However the value that newspapers have been able to add is no longer as valuable as the things that other sources can now provide:  better detail, better coverage, more instantaneous presentation and feedback, communal and cooperative content, and in some cases freedom from the former so-called value-added items (not everyone wants ads and coupons, and not everyone wishes to be confronted with certain kinds of information).  Indeed newspapers are not even as valuable as they used to be for advertisers—in the age of the internet, there are far more efficient means of getting the attention of the desired consumer.  

Journalism is still vital, and likely to prosper.  Newspapers, not so much.  At any rate, this is the way things are headed, so we need to get used to this fact.  The lingering question, therefore, is far more prickly, actually:  how will truth survive in an era of instant, tailored, selected, narrowcasted information?  What is ultimately on trial here is not whether the role that newspapers have played in democratic societies will be upheld by journalists working in different media (it will), but rather whether rationality itself will survive an era in which truth can be smushed like a jelly sandwich beneath the blubbery, muumuu-covered ass of information in the postmodern era.

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