Out of Print but Plenty of Comments

JeffersonHamilton.jpgThere’s been some buzzing in Basecamp, and at least a couple of comments on Locally Grown, about an article in the March 31st issue of The New Yorker. It’s titled “Out of Print” and was written by Eric Alterman. I drew the short straw and agreed to write a post about it. To oversimplify, it’s about the adverse impacts on newspapers resulting from the expansion of the web.

It’s a now familiar litany of problems: loss of advertisers, readers, market value, and, according to the author, “in some cases, their sense of mission”. The industry has reacted with budget cuts, bureau closings, buyouts, layoffs, and reductions in page size and column inches. The late columnist Molly Ivins complained that it’s a response that makes “our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting”.

Of more interest to me was the decline of the public’s trust of newspapers. A recent study by Sacred Heart University found that fewer than twenty percent of Americans said that they could believe “all or most” media reporting. Newspapers faired even more poorly in the public’s evaluation of their objectivity. Nearly nine in ten Americans, according to the Sacred Heart study, say the media consciously seeks to influence public policies.

The article goes on to study the apparently emerging model. It uses a website called the Huffington Post as an example. This site aggregates political news (and, based on my own observation, celebrity scandals), as well as organizes a group of (unpaid) bloggers. The site advocates that news is not something handed down from above but is a shared enterprise between its producers and its consumers.

The site is definitely popular. According to the article, in the last thirty days the site’s “unique visitors” jumped to more than eleven million. The bloggers’ posts often inspire a thousand comments. The author also states, “occasionally, these comments present original perspectives and arguments, but many resemble the graffiti on a bathroom wall”.

Newspapers have their strengths to be sure. There are at least a half dozen of papers in the country that spend millions of dollars researching stories from around the world. The author cites the front page of the February 11th New York Times which included a report from Nairobi, a dispatch from Doha, and a story about the existence of a study by the RAND Corporation “which offered a harsh critique of the Bush Administration’s performance in Iraq”. His point is that this quality of information is not currently generated, or financed, by websites. He argues, and I agree, that there is significant social and political value to this product and/or service.

He believes that the tensions between the mainstream media and the web-based challengers were foreshadowed by a great debate that began in the 1920s, between uberjournalist Walter Lippmann and iconoclast philosopher John Dewey. Lippmann suggested that democracy’s need for an informed electorate was unrealistic in an age of such complexity. He argued for essentially a tripartite of leaders from the public sector, the private sector and the press that would be more effective than citizens’ opinions in judging government’s actions. Dewey mistrusted this knowledge-based elite. He viewed the process of citizen discussion, deliberation, and debate to be as valuable as the resulting decisions for th strength and vitality of a democracy.

In fact, the author suggests, this elite came to be. First, it was the unintentional development of a “liberal bias” supporting some of the political and social initiatives coming out of the sixties. Then in was the thoughtful “counter-establishment” movement that brought conservatives to power in Washington. Although the perspectives changed, the “insider status” was continuously celebrated by the members of the media.

Then there was the “run-up to the Iraq War”, the Dan Rather Affair, and the Albert Gonzalez Scandal. The emerging media revealed that the mainstream media was, in the author’s words, “blinkered by their emotional investment in their Lippmann-like status as insiders”. Citizen journalists began taking on the responsibility for questioning the authorities, whether they were government bureaucrats, media mainstays, or elected officials, going well beyond the letter to the editor option offered by the elite.

The Huffington Post is not going to replace the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for my information dietary needs. My quick trip through the site made me think that perhaps citizen journalism is taking on some characteristics of People magazine. As for this participant in a democracy, I believe that I need both the quality of information offered by the elite newspapers and the questioning of authorities championed by the citizen journalists.

Who knows if we’ll all get the particular mix that meets our individual needs. Perhaps we’re just experiencing the curse, or opportunity, of living in exciting times.

11 thoughts on “Out of Print but Plenty of Comments”

  1. Wow, great post. Kudos!

    Citizen journalists began taking on the responsibility for questioning the authorities, whether they were government bureaucrats, media mainstays, or elected officials, going well beyond the letter to the editor option offered by the elite.

    Of course that’s happening. E-mailing elected officials, bureaucrats, media, etc. has been happening since the ’90’s…

    You don’t think the Huffington will replace the NYT or WSJ? Probably not those giants. The new idea is to bring us what we want. Cool and interesting, fast and far reaching, and etc. Bring us what we can’t get some other place.

    Side note: I see Hamilton and Jefferson in the photo. Maybe neither was right. Back to direct democracy, instead? If we have to side, or course I side with Hamilton. 🙂

  2. That of course brings us to the Representative Journalism trial that we will conduct right here in Northfield at Locally Grown. At my blog PJNet.org I have accumulating evidence over the last few years, that gets summarized in the New Yorker article. What will happen to journalism when the current journalism business model fails as is discussed in the New Yorker article?

    The answer will depend on each community. Do communities value news and information and the work that journalists do enough to sustain the journalist and journalists’ work? If they don’t, I am sure there will be no quality journalism. It is up to us to supply really high quality news and information and up to the community to figure out how to support it. The days of advertising subsidized news are coming to end much more quickly than any of us imagined.

    To understand what we hope to provide for Northfield, see the reporting fellowship description at JournalismJobs.com .

    By the way Ross, excellent review of the article.

  3. The publisher of the New York Times believes the last print edition is less than five years away, but with music already converted to download and movies and books headed that way, the end of print should come as no surprise. The end of print doesn’t mean the end of media or journalism, any more than the end of horse-drawn buggies marked the end of personal transportation.
    Huffington Post is far from a bunch of volunteers practicing civic journalism. It is a new media corporate giant. The company is private and so doesn’t release numbers, but some analysts say it’s worth $60 million. And like print media moguls, Arianna is getting people to work free with the hope that the exposure will drive advertisers to their own little sites, just like many magazines offer ‘exposure’ for free story contributions or let advertisers submit their own stories.
    And let’s make a distinction between journalism and media. Newsrooms are full of citizen journalists doing the best they can within the limits of time and money and corporate ownership. 25 percent of all real journalism jobs have disappeared in the last 10 years. Many are continuing their work online while working other jobs to pay the rent.
    I’m confused by the parallel claims that the corporate media is killing the news, insider media types are failing in their jobs as watchdogs and the liberal media is skewing coverage.
    The only real liberal media is the struggling Air America, and if you measure it against Rupert Murdoch’s empire of 150 newspapers and Fox News and the rest of his holdings, it’s not close to a fair fight. Most media is owned by stockholders, like those in Knight-Ridder who were willing to destroy quality news operations to jack up their stock price. Those weren’t media people making the decision, but pension funds and 401k plans and powerful individuals who saw journalism on a par with Starbucks and Target and Exxon Mobil.
    Will the public support civic journalism? No. That’s why Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine is thriving with ad-dominated content and the Rake has failed and survives only online and a dozen other efforts by journalists have failed. The ‘alternative’ City Pages thrives not on investigative journalism but raunchy personal ads and club news.
    If the liberal media is unduly influencing the nation, why have Republicans held power for 28 of the last 40 years? Why are 60 percent of all syndicated columns in the nation’s newspapers written by George Will and his avowed conservative colleagues? Why is radio dominated by conservatives?
    People love the diversity of the Internet because it allows them to find the niche where their version of the truth resides. Newspapers did do a good job of bringing everyone to the table to at least see all points of view. Now we can ignore anything except the views we already believe. The good news is that people willing to look outside themselves can connect with the whole world and create a better place for us all.
    This is an amazing topic and an exciting one. Thanks for bringing it up.

  4. Speaking of journalism, today’s (4/5) Wall Street Journal has the Five Best books on journalism according to Roger Mudd. They are:

    1. The Press by A. J. Liebling
    2. The News by John Chancellor and Walter Mears
    3. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
    4. The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel
    5. Reporting from Washington by Donal Richie

    The Press captures Liebling’s “Wayward Press” pieces written for The New Yorker from 1945 to 1963. The News is a detailed explanation of how it all works behind the scenes. The Journalist and the Murderer suggests that what journalists do is “morally indefensible”. The Elements of Journalism seems particularly appropriate to this discussion, coming out of a 1997 effort to restore “journalism’s fading credibility” by urging journalists to “reclaim the theory of a free press”. Reporting From Washington reveals why only Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid could be filmed indoors and sitting down.

    Perhaps now that David Ludescher has been freed up from some of his responsibilities, we might get that Brews and Books Club going…

  5. Anne, the end of print less than five years away? How sad that would be. Yes, I know my daughter’s generation seems to get all the news online. (As do others, of course.) But not everyone has computers. Yes, I have one, but I don’t want to sit at a computer screen to read stories of any length. I’d rather have a newspaper to read at my convenience, wherever I take it (reading the Northfield News at “The Hideaway” provides the opportunity to say, “Oh my gosh!” about the latest local development, thereby attracting empathic sounding boards.) Yes, I know you can be reading stories when out and about with your laptop and WiFi but I don’t think in five years everyone will have laptops. Or will they? They still weigh more than a newspaper. Oh, I forgot. Cell phones with Internet? Don’t you need good eyesight?
    Ahhh. My father was head of the journalism department at Iowa State in Ames for many years. I think he would be profoundly hurt at the idea of the demise of print newspapers. He would, however, be interested in the citizen journalism concept, even though he never had a computer and was amazed that a cousin of this that he had not seen for years could e-mail me a joke from California.
    I am curious if anyone else in the blogosphere would miss having a newspaper in print form. The hospital book sale brings out crowds so we know all people are not reading novels on their computers yet. But are books the next white elephants?

  6. Hi Anne Bretts:

    In your interesting post you write:

    Will the public support civic journalism? No.

    Forget the public at large for a minute. Would you and the people you know support an information community, including a paid journalist, with the goal of better understanding Northfield in all of its complexities?

    Could a professional journalist working closely with community members actually help accomplish that goal and how? Would it have value?

    Your ideas and those of others reading Locally Grown would be deeply appreciated.

  7. Hi, Leonard, hope I get to meet you next time you’re in town.
    If the Wall Street Journal can’t get people to pay, and the New York Times had to fork over its top writers for free, and I can’t even afford to work for the establishment paper in town, no, I don’t think people will pay for a journalist here. Northfield.org tried the old public radio fundraising effort and let’s just say it didn’t pay the bills.
    I think the money you have should be spent in community education about what journalism is — and in supporting and integrating Northfield.org, the News, LoGroNo and City Hall and the shools in a real online community network. If people have access to the documents and podcasts of the meetings, they can draw their own conclusions. (Facts don’t keep people from believing crazy stuff. Just look at the people who believe conspiracy theories — and some of the people here in Northfield. )
    Think about it. What if the journalist doesn’t find information to support the common beliefs and assumptions? What if the paying members want the school superintendent fired and the journalist investigates and finds that his subscribers are nutjobs who hate the superintendent and who want their brother-in-law in the job?
    And why would you want a civic journalist when the paper has fine journalists on staff? I thought this wasn’t about competition?
    This gets more and more complicated all the time.
    I’m glad I’m in trade journalism. We have no illusions about what we do.

  8. Hi Anne Bretts:

    In terms of this trial Representative Jounalism project in Northfield, there are lots of unanswered questions.

    That’s why it is a trial project. However, one thing I am totally sure about — we chose the right place. With Tracy, Ross, Griff and all the folks like you who come to Locally Grown, we are going to get plenty of guidance and critiques — plus we hope plenty of ideas and we are flexible enough to adapt to find a model that works as the weeks and months move forward.

    I will be back again, most likely in early June, and hope to meet you and others.

  9. So, folks, here’s your chance to quit complaining about the News and get out there and make journalism work the way you want it.
    Knock yourselves out.
    I can’t wait to see this unfold, but I’ll watch from the sidelines. Good luck — and I mean that.

  10. I’m wondering what citizen journalism means for LoGroNo– if it means Griff, Tracy and Ross posting, it already happens and so the experiment has long been underway.

    I think it is great and I’m glad to see LoGroNo lead the way. The competition for LoGroNo isn’t just the small town local news sources or blogs, it’s the world.

    Our other small town news sources might look at LoGroNo current strategies and see if they (these news sources) need change to draw in the “customer.” For example, is it easy to comment, and see comments on the News? If not, how can they adapt to fix that?

    I mean, come on– the News has online advertising. It is simply amazing that Griff, Tracy, and Ross have enough time to man this LoGroNo, and they don’t have online advertising. While I am at it, I think they should make money that way, and it should be more than a banner on the top.

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