Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Serendipitous Finds on the Decline of the Newspaper

Just after posting my recent piece on the significance of the decline of newspapers for historians, I came across several recent related reports.

In one of them, NPR broadcast a recording of New York Times correspondent David Sanger at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. In the question-and-answer session, the talk turned largely to the state and future of the press. As the host at once declared and asked, awash in superlatives, "The New York Times is really a beacon, you're able to do this very thorough work, collecting information, interviewing people all over the world, and so on." "A lot of us are concerned, especially about the future of the print media." "Are you going to be able to continue doing this sort of wonderful work that informs us, holds a national administration's feet to the fire, and so on?"

Citing a recent New Republic cover story devoted the death of the press, with the heading, "democracy loses its best friend," a member of the audience asked, “Do you believe that a few great papers might be saved by philanthropic support?” Sanger asked permission to address the issue more broadly, and replied:
The great paradox right now is that we’ve never seen a period in American history where newspapers are struggling so much, and other media, we’ve never seen a period in American history where what we produce is in such demand. It’s just that we don’t want to pay for it. The internet has made that possible now. So then that leads to your question, which is, can the world become more like NPR and PBS, where you are dependent on philanthropy to make this work. You know, that works for some models.
However, he continued, “it works to a limited extent.” One needs to be able to “take risks”: pursuing a lead to see where it ends up can cost “bundles of money” and sometimes doesn’t pan out.

Sanger's answers managed to be (as one might have predicted) at once astute and oblivious, insightful and self-serving. He is certainly right on the mark to say (not that this is news, no pun intended) that a major shift in the financial model and cultural assumptions is responsible for a large part of the crisis, and likewise that there are implications for scope and boldness of coverage.

However, he doesn't seem interested in or capable of historicizing the situation. Historians of the press can tell you that there were many models of reportage, from the early compilations based on private correspondence and printed sources (including foreign newspapers), to use of conveniently situated foreign contacts, to employment of traveling professional reporters, to acquisition of "content" from wire services. Above all, one ought to point out that one of the major pressures for ideological and other conformity came from precisely the classical capitalist model whose demise we are now bemoaning. The extent to which one is able to "take risks" and pursue a lead can be limited by economic considerations (desires of advertisers, whose product in effect financed modern papers ; need to maintain good will of influential audiences, etc.) other than lack of funds. "Bundles of money" may pay for a lot of plane tickets and hotel rooms but they hardly guarantee boldness of inquiry and diversity of reporting. (Can you say: Rupert Murdoch?)

He is likewise quite right to make a distinction between reporting and blogging, and we're all tired of the sites in which someone just shares an unfounded or unarticulated "opinion" (just sayin'):
What strikes me about what is happening in American media now is that people have begun to confuse blogging with reporting. Blogging is cheap. We can all blog in this room. It’s fun. It makes you feel better. It doesn’t necessarily give you a new set of information. It gives you a new set of opinions. And you know my favorite saying in American journalism is: ‘Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not everybody is entitled to their own set of facts.’ And what worries me about this process that we’re going through now is, we have fewer fact-gatherers and so, if we do move to a different model—if we move to non-profit models, which we may have to do—I want to make sure that we are emphasizing the fact-collection part, because opinion is not expensive to produce. That’s why we have so much of it. Facts are hard to gather and expensive to gather, and we’re going to need a mix of models. . . . I think we’re going to make it and we’re going to come out the other end [of the current financial crisis afflicting newspapers] because there is so much global demand for our individual product; the product isn’t going to look like what you’re accustomed to every day.
He is of course right to cite that wonderful statement about the right to opinions. He is likewise right to bemoan the decline of on-the-site reporting. It used to be that many mid-sized American and world newspapers had correspondents stationed in the various capitals and regions of the globe. Many have now given up that practice, largely for reasons of expense, but also because information is nowadays plentiful. We have gone in the space of 500 years from an age of information scarcity to one of information glut, and that's a game-changer if ever there was one.

However, he again seems to equate expense with quality (I'm sure he'd retract that statement, if pressed, but the iandvertent error is revealing). Where he likewise errs of course, is in assuming and declaring that blogging is only about opinion in the sense of totally subjective reactions and statements of personal preference devoid of either analysis or information. To be sure, there are a lot of bad blogs, just as there are a lot of bad newspapers. To be sure, there are more bad blogs than bad newspapers, for the reasons that he cites. And yet, newspapers have, yes, been known to make mistakes of omission or commission. And bloggers have come to play a prominent and in many ways stimulating role. Bloggers are in principle capable of judging the facts. Appropriate cautions granted, perhaps we should judge the results rather than the credentials. Bloggers, as even scholars of the media are now acknowledging, have been known to uncover discrepancies and scandals.

Bottom line: change or die. We can bemoan the loss of many virtues of the golden age of the press, but the fact remains that the intellectual, technical, and financial models for the press today are vastly different than they were in the presumed age of print journalism. (In fact, there's even—horrors!—a blog, entitled, with tongue in cheek but serious intent, Newspaper Death Watch: Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and Rebirth of Journalism. The separation of the two terms—newspapers and journalism—ought to command our attention.)

The dinosaurs were once superbly adapted to their world. So were the traditional newspaper and the scholarly monograph. One difference is that the print genres—that is to say, the men and women who produce themmdash;are able to direct their own evolution. Need we be reminded that one descendant of the dinosaurs is the turkey?

Another take was briefer, more satirical, and more popular in tone, but equally or more on the mark:

Change or die. Or, as Sanger says, "we're going to need a mix of models . . . . the product isn’t going to look like what you’re accustomed to every day.”

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