Sunday, February 22, 2009

the future of journalism, circa 2009

We can all mock the folks with bad hair and what they saw as the future of news back in 1982. Now, however, the discussion has ramped up to a somber debate more along the lines of the survival of news. It's all encompassing, and to be honest, exhausting, if not exhaustive.

Here's what is turning out to be a short syllabus of a few of the most recent ruminations, some of it new, some not so much. Which is maybe the root of the problem.

Start with Eric Alterman in the current issue of the Nation, who writes cogently about saving the news, not the newspaper, via philanthropy:
"But as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller pointed out in an Internet Q&A, we are losing the kind of journalism that, 'however imperfect, labors hard to be trustworthy, to supply you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen.' Alas, nobody wants to sell soap alongside a story of an IED killing a dozen US soldiers in Kabul or Karbala. Along these lines, Joel Kramer, former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, suggests the creation of a philanthropic endowment that will match donations to nonprofit enterprises doing public-affairs journalism. Indeed, plenty of people would love to provide this kind of reporting; journalism schools are filled with young people educating themselves for a profession that they are taught is about to become economically obsolete. They aren't there to get rich; they're there in the hopes of offering their fellow citizens what Walter Lippmann, writing in 1920, called 'Liberty and the News.' If history is any guide, you can't have one without the other."
Others, assuming that print is dead -- or soon will be -- advocate making the pay-per-click method work to subsidize the news we get for free. Here's what Jack Shafer had to say this week on, where he suggested that news orgs look "outside the browser":
"Every successful paid site competes with free sites, and as often as not, competes with itself by offering its own free content. The free stuff is used to upsell the customer to the paid varieties. The extreme application of this model is giving away 99 percent of the product and selling 1 percent—it's called "freemium," and Wired editor Chris Anderson talks about it in this interview and on his blog."

In "MSM, RIP", the editors of The New Republic, in a short and sweet editorial, remind us what we lose if we lose the press:

"Many venerable newspapers and magazines will close in the coming weeks and months; the ones that remain will be attenuated. But the old ideals embodied in these institutions must not be permitted to join the carnage."

Meanwhile, there was an interview on the Charlie Rose Show, between the eponymous host and Walter Isaacson of "Time," Robert Thomson of "Wall Street Journal" and Mort Zuckerman of "The New York Daily News", about revamping the current business model; a couple of weeks ago the NYTimes posted an online discussion among several media heavyweights who, among other things, advocate abandoning the "culture of free;" and last week, the WaPo's Howard Kurtz weighed in on different ways to finance what we know as the news.

But the best of the bunch, clearly, is a long essay by Gary Kamiya (one of the founding editors of salon-- one of the first online journals in the country -- and former editor at the San Francisco Examiner) on, where he reflects on what we can expect if the death of the newspaper means the death of reporting:

"What is really threatened by the decline of newspapers and the related rise of online media is reporting -- on-the-ground reporting by trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking and reporting, and conscious or unconscious bias.

"If newspapers die, so does reporting. That's because the majority of reporting originates at newspapers. Online journalism is essentially parasitic. Like most TV news, it derives or follows up on stories that first appeared in print. Former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll has estimated that 80 percent of all online news originates in print. As a longtime editor of an online journal who has taken part in hundreds of editorial meetings in which story ideas are generated from pieces that appeared in print, that figure strikes me as low.

"There's no reason to believe this is going to change. Currently there is no business model that makes online reporting financially viable. From a business perspective, reporting is a loser. There are good financial reasons why the biggest content-driven Web business success story of the last few years, the Huffington Post, does very little original reporting. Reported pieces take a lot of time, cost a lot of money, require specialized skills and don't usually generate as much traffic as an Op-Ed screed, preferably by a celebrity. It takes a facile writer an hour to write an 800-word rant. Very seldom can the best daily reporters and editors produce copy that fast."

Despite the above, he writes that the issue is still complicated: there are digital news sites that do in fact produce in-depth reporting, and that thanks to the internet, we now have more information, literally, at our fingertips than ever before. Still, he cautions:

"Finally, the death of reporting will dangerously erode the ideal of objectivity. Newspapers embrace the institutional mission of objectivity: Their goal is to find out and report the truth about a given subject, no matter what that truth is. They are not supposed to go in looking for an answer, or holding preconceived beliefs. Of course, the distinction between fact and interpretation is only absolute in the simplest cases -- it breaks down as soon as the event being covered acquires the least complexity or controversy. Reporters, like all human beings who are trying to make sense of complex experiences, must constantly make judgments that go beyond the mere facts. And the he-said, she-said approach mandated by objectivity can be ridiculously stupid. If Joe says the sky is blue and Jack, who is widely known to be a delusional psychotic who has just taken two tabs of acid, says it's purple with pink polka-dots, is it really necessary to report what Jack says?

"But if perfect objectivity is impossible, that doesn't mean that it should not be the goal. The reporter's predisposition toward fact and fairness serves as a kind of ballast, a corrective to her natural instinct to make up her mind prematurely. And those who have not been trained and inculcated in an institution dedicated to objectivity are less likely to be able to do this. Institutions matter. And traditional journalistic institutions, newspapers in particular, are weighted toward fairness and objectivity. The Internet is not. Of course, bloggers or untrained writers are capable of being fair; indeed, the better bloggers are precisely those who fully and fairly engage with those who disagree with them. But the blogging ethos as a whole runs in the opposite direction. Being a reporter does not come naturally to bloggers.

"No one can predict what the new information age will look like, and my version may be excessively dystopian. But one thing is indisputable: Reporting must be kept alive. With all its limitations and faults, it is a light that illuminates the world outside ourselves. And in an increasingly virtual and solipsistic age, that light is needed more than ever."

1 comment:

Liz Weeker said...

Lauren Rich Fine, a researcher for, says the iTunes "pay to play" model won't work for news because stories don't hold their value the same way songs do. Check out this article on the aptly titled site