Monday, March 23, 2009

The Not-So-Big Crisis

Lamenting the death of newspapers in the Nation, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney enlighten us on how the free press can be saved from evil corporations and the internet: government subsidies and a bunch of rules.

I've been meaning to blog about the decline of the newspaper industry for a while now (Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman had a podcast on the subject in relation to sports journalism on Simmons's podcast a few weeks ago, for those interested in such things) and this piece seemed as good starting point as any. What's interesting to me is how the debate tends to flow from the historical role of newspapers in America, as if this history was of the utmost importance in today's technologically sophisticated climate. So much emphasis is placed on declining journalistic standards and corporate control that little time is given to why it is exactly that newspapers are failing as a business model across the board.

Newspapers have spent the last decade forging ahead into the digital age, changing little in their plan of attack beyond providing free content on the internet. Some like to correlate the financial woes of the newspaper industry with the rise of free news content on the internet, but the stronger correlation seems to be with the growth of Craigslist and other online sources of free advertising. When I was in college in the early part of the decade there was plenty of free news content available on the internet, but I didn't know about Craigslist. According to Wikipedia, Craiglist expanded from 30 or so cities in 2003 (the year I graduated) to over 450 by 2007. As Craigslist has grown exponentially, so has the plight of newspapers. This change happened so quickly it's hard to place blame on anyone in the newspaper business, but it does mean that newspapers need drastic changes to survive, not cheaper attempts at doing more of the same thing.

The biggest mistake made by Nichols, McChesney, and a hell of a lot of other newspaper mourners, is the conflation of the newspaper with journalism, as if the newspaper in it's current state (or classic state really, seeing how watered down current newspapers have become) is the only mechanism by which journalists can fulfill their role as the fourth estate. I'm certainly not the one to reinvent the newspaper industry in one felled swoop, but just think about the many different costs that are part of newspapers. Are editorial boards and opinion writers necessary expenses in the age of blogs and online commentary? Are photographers necessary in an age of cable television and Youtube? Do the Sunday comics actually bring in more cash from readers than they cost to produce? And given reduced circulation, do newspapers actually make enough money from sales of physical sales of papers to cover the costs of production?

It seems to me as though newspapers have made cuts here and there and continually failed to ask the big questions about the product they're producing. I'm with the newspaper romanticizers who long for newspapers to provide quality groundbreaking reporting. But how much does that actually cost? How many reporters does a small city like Hartford actually need? I have no idea how many reporters they actually employ, but it seems to me as though the local Hartford Courant only has a few worthwhile stories a week and has that groundbreaking type stuff only a few times a year. Either you've got a lot of people doing a shitty job or you really only need a few journalists in a small city. It sounds outrageous, but just look at your local paper and see how many stories or either from the AP wire or are simply rewrites from the AP wire.

Allow me to be clear. There's no reason that the problems of newspapers need to be the problems of good journalism. There are plenty of quality journalists out there working independently of newspapers. Take Radley Balko for instance, who writes for Reason magazine (which is in part funded by the non-profit Reason think tank), and has done tremendous investigative work in the area of criminal justice on stories not covered by local or national journalists- the Cory Maye case, Dr, Stephen Hayne and the disreputable Mississippi forensic system to name a few. I've seen more solid, traditional journalism from Balko alone than I've seen from the Hartford Courant over the past five years.

There are plenty of reasons why the level of journalism in newspapers has sunk so low, but that's a separate issue from the financial troubles of newspapers. Yes, newspapers have cut back on news staff, but that's got nothing to do with the crap the remaining news staff is printing.

Nichols and McChesney propose that government money and government regulation is needed to support good journalism while completely missing the idea that yes, it may be possible for good journalists to make money independent of the outdated newspaper model. That people don't want to pay for the online content of a crappy paper doesn't mean that they wouldn't pay a lesser amount to support the work of a good reporter. For pennies a day, a mere 10,000 people could support a good reporter to the tune of $100,000 plus per year and yes I do think that people would pay these small amounts to support good journalism.

ESPN online offers sports fans the opportunity to access premium content on it's website and ties that offer in with its print magazine for a cost of $40 a year. I pay it and plenty of my friends pay it because there are columnists we want to read and information we want. There's no reason the same model can't work for good journalism. Journalists could go solo, they could form non-profits, or they could try and make a go as a profit making enterprise. I don't know the best answer and I don't know if there actually is a best answer. But there's a world of possibilities made all the bigger and all the easier because of the internet, not in spite of it. To throw in the towel and rush to the outstretched hand of government is a failure of imagination, perhaps even a concession to the argument that Americans are too stupid to know what's good for them.

But like all the bailout banks, give newspapers a chance to fail so that we the taxpayers don't wind up subsidizing the same lousy crap. Let's give real, worthwhile journalists the opportunity to reinvent themselves and change the news business for the better.


Anonymous McMc said...

The quality of journalistic integrity and things of that nature declined because the public stopped demanding it. Originally, people just wanted as much information as possible in a story. Now people want whatever info is available as fast as possible. A point brought up in the podcast you mention was that newspapers tried to be TV, they tried to be radio and ultimately they went away from their strengths. I'll have more a bit later.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous McMc said...

I studied Journalism in college and once even thought about a career in newspapers before deciding against it. I've discussed topics like this a great deal but I have never heard a discussion quite like the Bill Simmons-Chuck Klosterman one on the B.S. Report. Klosterman hits on so many terrific points throughout and I highly recommend that anyone interested in the topic listen to it.

Anyways, it's always weird learning about all of the fundamentals that come with a craft and then seeing them violated in practice. I didn't write anything that got published (mainly because I never took that step) but I did write and report on real stories. My teachers were real live journalists, some award winning, some more minor in scale. Regardless, a few things I was always taught:

1) Never use just one source. You don't want your story to be skewed. If you try to get info from a source and they don't answer your calls or ignore you, put that in the story.
2) Avoid anonymous sources at all costs. In practice, this never seems to be the rule.
3) Never make yourself a part of the story. Always be a third party.
4) Be impartial. Don't get too involved with something/someone you'll report on.

The funny thing is, the sports world violates those rules much more than any other journalistic practice. How often do you hear reporters defending players because they are great people or what have you? That's just so wrong and even if they can report on a player fairly, why even cultivate any doubt? I've publicly called into question sports reporting on my blog and got killed for it but even now, even after being proven wrong, I still stand by what I said. I see it in a lot of stories to be honest, it just so happens that the story in question involved Brett Favre.

The point is, when it comes to sports reporting I'm just mystified by how such basic rules are continually broken and how the public just doesn't seem to care. The public continuously trusts an "anonymous source" more than the person the story is about. Stories are rushed to air or print without the story even being complete. Remember T.O.'s "suicide attempt"? All it took was a "friend" saying T.O. was depressed and people freaked. Remember Vince Young's tale of depression and possible death wish? Turned out he had just left his phone at home. I mean, those are HUGE errors that really made fans call into questions certain aspects of these athletes and afterward, the public just says "oh, it was a misunderstanding". Even the athletes themselves shrug it off. Again, these sort of things baffle me.

To tie it all in, newspapers don't really make those types of mistakes because they have more time to allow the details to come in. Problem is, no one cares that they do it the right way.

And to just touch on newspapers a bit more... I mean, they do have a place in society and I think they are important in that they draw our eye off the national scale and back into our local atmosphere. If you get your news from the internet, even from your local newspaper on the internet, you're still mostly seeing national stories. Local TV news is awful, national TV news is overwhelming and major news outlets like or focus on the global landscape. Newspapers are the most basic form of journalism and we need them to sort of keep us grounded.

Here's my proposal for keeping newspapers afloat:

I think the AP (associated press) needs to take more control and lure the bigger reporters away from smaller newspapers and open more branches. Smaller papers like the Hartford Courant don't need a giant staff. They can use AP stories for anything national. All the critics papers have? Get rid of them and just find someone who is more national. Let Roger Ebert syndicate his column all over. Allow more user generated content for opinions. Finally, keep a small staff of young reporters and just throw them out there for local stuff. Limit the amount of stories actually reported on, make the paper smaller and more centralized and maybe you'd just use your big reporters as internet-exclusive guys. Maybe instead of columns, you allow your biggest sports reporter to blog throughout the day. Stuff like that would actually adapt to the modern world and would usher in more change for newspapers and allow younger reporters more opportunity to shine. And you know what? Letting the younger reporters work could actually see dividends because they have more incentive to report accurately and swiftly.

Newspapers aren't dead yet and I do think they have a place, they just need to find it.

2:27 AM  
Anonymous McMc said...

And as ridiculous as it might sound....imagine if we had "newsies" walking around New York, for example. Couldn't someone announcing what is actually in the paper help sales as opposed to a paper sitting in a box with only one or two stories visible? I mean, as long as the kids don't sing and dance it might not be a terrible idea.

2:31 AM  
Anonymous rose said...

So let's sum up their arguments:

"We need healthy independant newspapers to act as government watchdogs."

"So lets have the government subsidize and regulate the industry."

That is fucking hilarious. Really, that is too much.

McMc, LL, you both make really good points. One other point I'd like to make: why are right leaning newspapers and cable news shows doing much better than the competition? I think its simple supply and demand. There's an equal # of people who want left-leaning garbage as right leaning garbage. There is a glut of biased, left-leaning publications. There are too many for the market to support. Biased, right-leaning media is much rarer, but the demand base is basically the same.

I'm simply saying the left POV is extremely over-represented and therefore more competitive than the other side.

11:46 AM  

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