The Death of Newspapers (and Journalism?)

I am fairly unusual for my generation: I grew up reading newspapers.  Every day after I had finished delivering the Edmonton Journal (by 6:30am!), I’d sit down at the table with a bowl of cereal and the news.  It’s statistically unusual for people under the age of 36 to actually like to read a newspaper, but I’m there.  I really enjoy holding newsprint and leafing through collections of columns and stories and photos.  That’s why my defection to the Internet is a sign that the newspaper industry is likely doomed.  I don’t read paper any more: I visit newspaper sites online for free.  This raises the question: what am I doing to my society?

There’s been an enormous amount of hand-wringing in American journalism over the last year as daily papers start to go belly up.  This recent New York Times article on the plight of the two Philadelphia dailies is a great analysis of what’s happening.  Readers are starting to migrate online.  People who prefer and are willing to pay for a paper version of the daily are getting older, and the current recession has pushed many to drop subscriptions.  More and more people—especially younger news-readers like myself—are turning to the free online versions of the papers.  This wouldn’t be the end of the world if advertising revenues on the Internet were higher.  Unfortunately, the paper part of the newspapers’ incomes is far, far more lucrative, such that even high-traffic sites don’t generate enough money to support hundreds of reports, editors and support staff—really popular sites can afford staffs of a few dozen people.

This is where media and culture meet.  Today’s communication technology allows easy copying of material, and allows easy, international distribution.  Practically, that means it’s very hard to prevent content from spreading—if my newspaper only allows paid subscribers to access stories, what’s to stop those paid subscribers from copying and pasting the story anonymously on some free site?  And in any case, if they put up that subscription wall and people actually respect copyright, then people will just find a free site.  There are potentially billions of sites to search through!  The new technology has threatened an old way of doing things.

As the NYT article notes, newspapers have seen this coming, and so far, nobody seems to have been able to make the Internet work as a moneymaker for dailies.  So as the number of paper readers steadily (and now quickly) declines, respected news sources have either had to cut staffs drastically or basically go out of business.  For example, the relatively established Seattle Post-Intelligencer effectively shut down this spring, contracting to a size that their website can support: from 165 news staff to 20 (you can also read the wikipedia article).

Newspaper journalists are naturally upset about this development.  They bring up a lot of arguments about the tragedy of online content, many of which are effectively sentimental.  It’s almost always emotionally traumatic when an economic way of life collapses.  But I’m not so concerned about that.  I’m sure I’d feel the same way if I was in their position, but if we used that kind of argumentation to stop other social processes, we’d never change anything in our society.  The real question should be: is this change a good one or a bad one?

To this end, newspaper enthusiasts raise truly worrisome points.  Journalists from dailies are an alternative—and often more thorough and careful—source of news on the national and international stage.  Most news-gathering agencies have downscaled and consolidated bureaus around the world, including in their own countries in the past decade or two.  Every time this happens, our sources for professional journalism constricts.  Less voices = less healthy.

But where daily newspapers make their most significant social contribution is in the area of local reporting.  Specifically, investigative reporting is crucial to rooting out corruption in government at civic, provincial and state levels.  TV news outlets typically have far smaller staffs than newspapers and can’t devote personnel to long-term investigative work in the same way that newspapers have typically done.  If the newspaper dies, who takes care of that? 

Some people argue that the new class of bloggers will fill that gap—instead of an institutionalized group of reporters, we have the power of the crowd rooting things out in a more organic, but still-powerful way.  Certainly bloggers have had some journalistic successes where traditional media outlets have failed.  Take, for example, the recent case of a pro-industry report on copyright that plagiarized its sources--no mainline media outlet picked up on this until fair copyright advocate and blogger Michael Geist looked into it and publicized the problem.  Or the really in-depth analysis by online tech-magazine Ars Technica of commonly-cited figures about copyright piracy.  (Can you tell what I've been reading about lately?)

But professional journalists critique the inconsistency of blogging, and I think it’s a mostly fair critique.  While some bloggers have formal journalistic training, many do not, and while that occasionally has benefits, it can also lead to material that varies enormously in terms of quality (more than it does in professional journalism).  Plus, it’s a very hit-or-miss process as to whether predictably important institutions and processes will get attention from bloggers.  By which I mean: the boring proceedings of this or that subcommittee can be tremendously important, but if it doesn’t happen to catch the fancy of some blogger who has the time to sit in, it’ll go uncovered.  Newspapers miss stuff too, of course, but they’re more likely to assign reporters to this kind of thing.  To be honest, mainline news and unorthodox bloggers work together very nicely to catch stories that the other won’t or can’t access.  But we’re in a transition time, and it looks like it won’t be long before this mix disappears—the professional newspaper reporter is disappearing.

So what should we think about this?  Should we be serving our communities by getting a subscription to the local paper, even though we could read it for free online?  Or should newspapers try some alternate revenue-gaining scheme?  New media guru Clay Shirky argue no, in this really excellent essay.  I can’t really fully do justice to his argument, but he believes that what we’re experiencing right now is the kind of cultural revolution we see every time we have a massive change in communication technology—like we did when we transitioned from hand-writing to print.  The old institutions made possible by the old technologies—like the daily newspaper—are not going to survive in the new order, just as the hand-writing scriptorium disappeared when the press arrived.

The other argument that Shirky makes that I think is crucial is that journalism is not the same thing as newspapers.  Journalism will survive even if newspapers disappear.  Because of a series of historical factors, we have come to see the two as synonymous.  But that’s not necessary.  After the daily disappears, something else will come along.  What appears, Shirky says, is impossible to know for sure at this point.  That’s the tough part of revolutions—the old will definitely go, but the new is unpredictable.

Shirky might sound a little technological determinist, but I think his basic argument is solid—the newspaper as it currently exists is a creation of a different social-technological set-up than what we’ve got today and where we’re going in the near future.  But we are not helpless in this process.  What is crucial is that as journalism transforms, we find ways to preserve the values we think are important—thorough investigation, proper sourcing of reporting, independence from vested interests, and especially advocacy of public interest where it conflicts with the self-interest of the powerful.  In other words, we need to have a class of people who keep government, wealth and power honest.

I’m convinced that part of this will be broad-based participation—that’s what the Internet is good at.  But I’ve said enough for now, and I’ll write about that in another post.


P.S. Several people have mentioned to me the growing noises that newspaper industry executives are considering re-introducing pay-to-read schemes.  Rupert Murdoch has pretty much announced that all News Corporation papers will require online readers to pay in some way.  Here's an article about the Financial Times that analyzes how the paid subscription for online content stuff would work.  Such ideas have been bounced around, but right now it's starting to sound like practically every major news source--in the U.S., at least--might head this direction.  I'm not sure what to make of this.  It's not a radical idea to charge for content, of course, although most web sites have headed away from this.  I think what most businesses have typically found is that if you charge for a product that some people feel is worth having, you'll get a steady income, but a relatively small one.  It will also really put some hijinks into the practice of linking.  In any case, I'm not sure that this changes the arguments of this blog post.  I'm sure that paid-access will work somewhat for a while.  But eventually, it's not going to work.  I rather suspect you might see something of a black market in copied articles spring up and/or free-content providers spring up as well.  Closed doors don't work terribly well in our techno-social situation, as the music industry found a long time ago.

Last updated Aug. 17th, 2009 at 8:18am by Kevin Schut