Renewing the News
NEW YORK - Last week, rumors from the world of print media were rife: a hundred reporters from The New York Times news desk to be bought out - or to lose their jobs if they refuse; steep cutbacks at British newspapers; staffs slashed at Condé Nast - eight respected editors axed at Glamour magazine. In the United States and elsewhere, there is a sense that the long-foreseen implosion of news publishing is accelerating, having reached a kind of critical mass.
The head of a famous journalism school, echoing sentiments common among her peers, told me recently, "We are preparing students to enter a profession that won't exist as we know it by the time they graduate."
There is no way to disguise the reality: newspapers readers, in the West at least, are getting older; younger readers prefer to get their information online, where readers spend far less time actually reading news than print readers do; and, most agonizingly of all for the industry, people who were willing to pay for newspapers are unwilling pay for the same content on a screen.
But does this mean the death of news, or its evolution? I think we are witnessing something new being born.
There is a great deal to mourn about the passing of the older news model. I had the honor of attending the premiere of The Most Dangerous Man in America , the new documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and his daring release of the Pentagon Papers - against the will of the US government - to The New York Times back in 1971. At that time, newspapers held the public's focus and could be a powerful gadfly. If you were President Richard Nixon, there was no ignoring what appeared on the front page of The New York Times .
The blessings of the Internet are many, but one casualty of our segmentation into online subcultures is the loss of a common focal point. It is easy for a president or prime minister to ignore a thousand Web sites; the multiplicity of outlets and voices online, paradoxically, has weakened the media's power to force accountability from leaders.
But the passing of the old news model has also had a salutary effect. People's relationship to authority figures - doctors, politicians, religious leaders, or, indeed, journalists - is no longer slavishly deferential. But this means that newspapers, in order to survive, will have to abandon their top-down tone, their "we decide what's important" sense of hierarchy, and create more collaborative kinds of documentation and feedback with citizens.
This does not mean merely permitting comments on an article that is published online; it means creating more opportunities for citizens to document, record, curate, and edit news from their own communities. A new form could evolve from this changed power relationship between editors and citizens, potentially becoming as powerful as traditional journalism, if not more so.
First, online news outlets will have to link not just to sources, but to live footage, ideally shot by citizens. I have created op-eds in partnership with a citizens' video news collective, The Glass Bead collective. There is a potent immediacy to documents that have hyperlinks to footage of veterans being trodden underfoot by mounted police at a demonstration at the US presidential debates, or students being gassed in their rooms during the recent G-20 summit. As more citizens become documentarians, online newspapers will have to curate their work to reflect reality on a level of visual urgency that new readers take for granted.
Second, news outlets will have to be interactive: they should regularly teach citizens op-ed writing, for example, so that editors can receive a truly diverse set of submissions - well sourced, well written, and well argued - from people from all walks of life.
Finally, citizens should be able to continue to curate a news story. On Facebook, of all places, I experienced the amazing potential of posting an item and then inviting my "community" to continue the research as well as the debate. To be sure, I have been exposed to flimsy sources, and newspapers of the future should help readers learn what a good source is, and what good citizen journalism requires. But I have also had many eye-opening experiences as people from around the world and from every background deepen my understanding and sourcing about issues as far-ranging as military law, religious practices, and swine flu.
With every shift in medium, there is a period of mourning for the old one. I don't pretend to possess journalism's Holy Grail: a sustainable business plan for the newspaper of the future. But I do know that that goal is far more likely to be achieved if newspapers take their readers seriously and train them as documentarians of their own communities and of their own moments. If newspaper publishers continue merely to rearrange the deck chairs, their elegant, elitist - and currently sinking - ship will deserve its fate.
© 2009 Project Syndicate