Read all about it!

March 20, 2013



On the heel of Pew’s new report on the “State of the Media 2013,” there’s been a good bit of hand-wringing over the future of journalism in general, and of newspapers in particular.  And not without reason:  in 2012 newspapers lost $13 dollars in print ads for every $1 dollar they’ve gained online (ads and subscriptions combined).  And that’s had a sad but understandable effect; as Pew reports, “estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.”

But as Matt Yglesias argues at Slate, what’s tough on the industry we’ve known might not be so bad for the society it’s there to serve.  The pessimism is…

…not wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken. It’s a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.

Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…

In any case, it’s worth remembering that the future of newspapers has been a subject of contemplation for over a century… and as Smithsonian‘s Paleofutures blog reminds us, of predictions that have rarely been right.

Many of us here in the 21st century like to think of the newspaper as this static institution. We imagine that the newspaper was born many generations ago and until very recently, thrived without much competition. Of course this is wildly untrue. The role of the newspaper in any given community has always been in flux. And the form that the newspaper of the future would take has often been uncertain.

In the 1920s it was radio that was supposed to kill the newspaper. Then it was TV news. Then it was the Internet. The newspaper has evolved and adapted (remember when TV news killed the evening edition newspaper?) and will continue to evolve for many decades to come.

Visions of what newspapers might look like in the future have been varied throughout the 20th century. Sometimes they’ve taken the form of a piece of paper that you print at home, delivered via satellite or radio waves. Other times it’s a multimedia product that lives on your tablet or TV…

Visit “The Newspaper of Tomorrow: 11 Predictions from Yesteryear” for an instructively humbling trip back to the future.

“Special Glasses for Reading in Bed” source: Nationaal Archief

Much breath is being spent by the Chattering Classes predicting, debating, and otherwise worrying over the fates of the book, journalism, and publishing at large– broadly speaking: the creation, dissemination, storage, and use of knowledge itself.  Lots of jargon, a wealth of acronyms, and liberal use of facile analogies and constructs– it’s all a little dizzying.

Happily, Tim Carmody has ridden to the rescue. While he has mooted his own manifesto for the future of the book (eminently worth a read), his most recent contribution to the Science and Technology section of The Atlantic blog, is just what one needs in a Babel-like time such as this– some context.  In “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books,” that’s precisely what he provides as he recounts, for example, the move from rolled scroll to folded codex, the replacement of papyrus by parchment (and then paper), the shift from vertical to horizontal writing/reading, back to vertical…

It’s fascinating; it’s illuminating… and it’s a terrifically useful reminder that writing, reading– communicating– and the forms in which they’re done have always been in flux: “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books.”


The holy grail for most serious journalists is “objectivity”– a Positivist concern with facts over values that has been the goal of most newsmen and women since the late 19th century, and that has been enshrined by accolades like the Pulitzer Prize (ironically named for Joesph Pulitzer, the “co-founder” [with William Randolph Hearst] of “yellow journalism”).

Indeed, in these times– that’s to say, on the heels of years of mainstream journalism that sacrificed both editorial focus and journalistic effort to economic and ideological agendas– objectivity seems more important than ever. In the haze of uncertainty that surrounds us today, fairness and accuracy matter as much or more than ever; but almost 13 years of “Fair and Balanced” (and all of its counterparts), it’s harder and harder to find.

So it’s with something like nostalgia that one reads the estimable John McPhee’s paean to the fact checkers at The New Yorker.  Those legendary guardians of accuracy are still at work…  but are more and more unique in the field.*

Objective journalism isn’t easy…  if it’s even possible.  Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and others have argued that “objective journalism” is inherently biased toward the powers-that-be (who’ve defined the terms of the “dialogue”); Tim Berners-Lee has warned that “objective”journalism on the web is vulnerable to “cults of thinking”– memes that gather momentum, even as they misinform (e.g., the concern over the MMR vaccine that left many English children unprotected).

Indeed, as a practical matter (and at the risk of waxing epistemological), in the best of cases a piece of journalism, a recounting of a situation, can never be absolutely “true”– that’s to say, a perfect representation of the event/situation/phenomenon recounted. It can only be truthful, or “true to”– it can have verisimilitude.  In that quest, objectivity is critical, at the same time that in its pure form it’s surely unattainable…

Nonetheless, many of us believe, it is critical to try.

It’s against this backdrop, as earlier posts report (e.g., “Inevitable Surprises: Gray Lady Down…“), that our legacy source of objective journalism, the mainstream media, is tanking.   Newspapers, broadcast news, news magazines– many (if not most) are in what looks perilously like a death spiral. (C.f., e.g., here and here.)

And that, incumbent journalists and publishers suggest, is a terrific problem for objectivity.  Unless we discover new business models– or, as is increasingly suggested, not-for-profit models– the implosion will continue; the resources necessary to full and objective coverage of the issues-that-matter will wither; and civic discourse will suffer…  It’s a pretty frightening prospect.  And the more local one’s concerns, the scarier it gets, as local media seem to be wilting at the fastest pace.

FWIW, I share the anxiety… but would note, by way of context, two things:

First, an irony:

It’s on the heels of the economic downturn, during which an advertising downturn has aggravated the growing competitive pressure of new media, that this civic-minded plea has found voice.  But the evisceration of journalism– the narrowing of coverage, the attenuation of objectivity– has been going on for well over a decade.  The consolidation of media ownership made for a landscape that was, increasingly, a monoculture.  In an effort to extract that little bit of extra value, unique (especially local) coverage was sacrificed to shared resources.  It was most visible (or better said, audible) on the radio dial, then in the shrinking local news holes (and staffs to fill them) on local papers.  It’s (at least ostensibly) least true of local television, where local “news” has exploded…  but even there, if one looks closely, one sees less and less actual local reportage and a richer and richer mix of acquired material (often from sources– corporations and interest groups– with axes to grind).

At a national level too, original reportage steadily shrank; and more concerning, reporters morphed from objective outsiders to entitled, vested insiders.  (For a terrific analysis, see Jim Fallow’s remarkable Breaking the News– published in the mid-90s).

Which is all just to say that civic discourse was already badly served by mainstream journalism well before the threat of “new media” and the travails of a recession.  The mainstream media weren’t bindsided; they had ample opportunity to take stock of emerging new technology (they did, after all, cover them), and to transform their services to take advantage of the opportunities new platforms create.  Had incumbents done so, they’d surely be less troubled by the current economy.  (For an example of a company that did change, and with success, in an adjacent media field, see this interview with outgoing Reed CEO, Sir Crispin Davis.) Instead, while the pickings were easy, most incumbent media/news organizations simply focused on efficiency, on sacrificing quality (including the breadth of reporting that makes for objectivity) to extract more profit from their legacy ways of doing their legacy businesses. Web sites and blogs notwithstanding, most of them narrowed their bases and made themselves more vulnerable..  So here they– and we– sit.

Second, an observation:

As mentioned above, much of the conversation about saving objective journalism and civic discourse– which is to say, the conversation among and reported by legacy media companies– is focused on how to save those legacy companies. After all, isn’t most new media news simply snatched from the old media and repurposed?  And more to the specific point here, if we let those legacy newsrooms die, where will we get objective reporting?

I’ve noted above that those legacy newsrooms had already sacrificed much of their objectivity.  But there’s a deeper assumption at work in these calls for preservation– the assumption that the only route to objective journalism is through newsrooms staffed by professionals.  Now I, for one, do believe that professional journalists who are actually trying to do an objective job and who have sufficient resources, can make a tremendous contribution.  I value them enormously, and am deeply grateful for services that range from The Atlantic Monthly to New America Media (and the ethnic/alternative press it embodies).

But I don’t believe that their more traditional approach is the only route to objectivity.  When Wikipedia came onto the scene in 2001 it was a novelty; soon, as contributors began to populate it, and as use built, it became the “easy, interesting, but untrustworthy” alternative to canonical sources like Britannica…

Wikipedia users “police” entries both for accuracy and for objectivity– two qualities that we seek in journalism.   By 2006, Wikipedia was pulling even in the credibility race; and now, research suggests that it is as accurate (or more) than its more traditional competitors.

So, it seems likely to me, we will see objective news coverage emerge from the scrum of social media and the blogosphere.  (See Clay Shirky’s terrific Here Comes Everybody and his Boing Boing post here.)

If we’re lucky, “social journalism” will co-exist with more traditional “professional newsroom” objectivity.  In any case, this crowd-keeping-itself-honest form of journalism promises not only to foster civic discourse, but in fact to be civic discourse… and that’s not a bad thing.

* For an amusing (and poignant) musical take on the mainstream media’s objectivity and accuracy issue, click here, then again on the link at the top of the post…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 434 other followers