Please don’t let the title of this post give you the impression that I disdain newspapers or journalists. The journalists that I know are amazingly smart sponges of information and very diligent in their pursuit of interesting and informative stories. And the papers and magazines that they work for are trying to inform their readership — and stay in business largely through advertising. But no one, no person or institution, makes good decisions in a panic. And the panicked cacophony is creating an echo chamber of desperation out of which nothing good will come.
The blogosphere (and Twitter-sphere) are divided into two camps: the “woe’s us” camp, and the “something interesting is happening here” camp.
Of course, the woes us are in a greater panic and are therefore shouting louder. Open up a paper and read about the apocalypse:
1. The Times Arts section today devotes considerable real-estate in the print edition eulogizing the demise of the The Washington Post’s pull-out Sunday book review section. The book review section began in 1967, was folded into the Style section in 1973 (presumably because of a lack of advertising), reformulated as a stand-alone in the 1980s, and folded back in again today because of a lack of advertising.
I have three problems with this article: 1) if a critical mass of people aren’t reading this section (which we know because advertisers follow eye balls very carefully, and 2) the section isn’t actually going away, it’s going online and largely staying on land as well, then, 3) then why are we spending so much time eulogizing it except to stoke the woe’s us crowd?
A second woe’s us article was in the New Yorker today (brought to my attention by Jay Rosen, thx) by Steve Coll. Steve picks up on the Times op-ed yesterday about endowing newspapers that I dismissed here. The most telling sentence in this post is this sentence that follows a clear-eyed assessment of the benefits of online journalism followed by this sentence:
Still, there is just no substitute for the professional, civil-service-style, relentless independent thinking, reporting, and observation that developed in big newsrooms between the Second World War and whenever it was that the end began—about 2005 or so. And those qualities arose from the scale of those newsrooms, and the way the quasi-monopoly business model and high-quality family owners shielded them from political or commercial pressure—not perfectly, but largely.
Change is hard and difficult, but as someone once told me often times the thing we fear most has already happened. The clickety-clack newspaper offices filled with fedora wearing, ink-stained, “real” reporters is as long gone as Joe DiMaggio. The difficulty with the woe’s us approach is that it gets stuck in old, fundamental assumptions that are no longer true, if they ever were. In this case they include:
- The presumption is that the only real journalism is the one that happens in newsrooms;
- That there ever reall was a firewall between reporters and commercial and political interests;
- The news that is posted online is by definition of a lesser quality than that printed on smudgy paper. Perhaps more than any other assumption I read, this is the most confounding to me. That simply putting news article online they will automatically, by definition, be of lesser quality than what was in print. I don’t know what this assumption is based on other than simply fear of change;
- The dismissal of amazing reporting done by individuals, you can call them citizen journalists, or just individuals who saw something and reported it, in places like Tibet, Kenya, New Orleans and on the campaign trial in lieu of or in combination with paid journalists;
- Oh, and just because I can’t quite let it go because it really is stupid, one last comment on the endowment model proposed yesterday that Coll romantically embraces in his post. If anyone thinks that big donors will give money and walk away with no strings attached they should talk to universities and museums!
But if you listen carefully, you can hear and see interesting ideas beginning to bubble up. Here is a very thoughtful post by on various ways to approach the problem. Another interesting idea was posted today by Leonard Witt of to create a “community trust” for the Times like the Green Bay Packers whereby readers would invest, say, $400 each to become shareholders in the company. This would create an endowment to support the annual operations.
It’s certainly a better idea than a philanthropic endowment, but it stops short of fundamentally changing the relationship between newspapers and readers that is necessary to make them sustainable. We have so much more to offer than our small checkbooks. Why can’t newspapers:
1. Involve us in helping them to problem solve. Why not have community forums at local libraries and online to ask us to crowdsource the problem and come up with new solutions?
2. Enlist readers as critics? Do we really need to read what one person has to say about movies, local restaurants and books? Why not enlist readers as critics who can create their own reputation systems online?
3. Partner with local bloggers to share their content? Does it really take a professional journalist to cover school board meetings? Newspapers have held citizen journalists at a distance and in disdain to their own detriment. This is not a zero-sum game, there is room for both and more citizens should be encouraged to take up a local “beat”.
I’d love to hear other suggestions of ways for newspapers and readers to become partners in a new hybrid entity.