The Death of The News

If reporting vanishes, the world will get darker and uglier. Subsidizing newspapers may be the only answer.

Journalism as we
know it is in crisis. Daily newspapers are going out of business at an
unprecedented rate, and the survivors are slashing their budgets.
Thousands of reporters and editors have lost their jobs. No print
publication is immune, including the mighty New York Times. As analyst Allan Mutter noted,
2008 was the worst year in history for newspaper publishers, with
shares dropping a stunning 83 percent on average. Newspapers lost $64.5
billion in market value in 12 months.

All traditional media is in trouble, from magazines to
network TV. But newspapers are the most threatened. For readers of a
certain age, newspapers stand for a vanishing era, and the pleasures of
holding newsprint in their hands is one that they are loath to give up.
As a former newspaperman myself, like most of the original founders of
Salon, I have a strong attachment to my dose of daily ink. I get most
of my news online, but I still subscribe to both the local paper, in my
case the San Francisco Chronicle, and to the New York Times. At parties
and in casual conversations, speculation that newspapers might vanish
like the dinosaurs that once ruled the earth spurs passionate jeremiads
about the decline and fall of Western civilization.

But the real problem isn't that newspapers may be doomed.
I would be severely disheartened if I was forced to abandon my morning
ritual of sitting on my deck with a coffee and the papers, but I would
no doubt get used to burning out my retinas over the screen an hour
earlier than usual. As Nation columnist Eric Alterman recently argued, the real problem isn't the impending death of newspapers, but the impending death of news -- at least news as we know it.

What is really threatened by the decline of newspapers and
the related rise of online media is reporting -- on-the-ground
reporting by trained journalists who know the subject, have developed
sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors
who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a
further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking and
reporting, and conscious or unconscious bias.

If newspapers die, so does reporting. That's because the
majority of reporting originates at newspapers. Online journalism is
essentially parasitic. Like most TV news, it derives or follows up on
stories that first appeared in print. Former Los Angeles Times editor
John Carroll has estimated that 80 percent of all online news
originates in print. As a longtime editor of an online journal who has
taken part in hundreds of editorial meetings in which story ideas are
generated from pieces that appeared in print, that figure strikes me as

There's no reason to believe this is going to change.
Currently there is no business model that makes online reporting
financially viable. From a business perspective, reporting is a loser.
There are good financial reasons why the biggest content-driven Web
business success story of the last few years, the Huffington Post, does
very little original reporting. Reported pieces take a lot of time,
cost a lot of money, require specialized skills and don't usually
generate as much traffic as an Op-Ed screed, preferably by a celebrity.
It takes a facile writer an hour to write an 800-word rant. Very seldom
can the best daily reporters and editors produce copy that fast.

But the story is more complicated than that. At the same
time that newspapers are dying, blogging and "unofficial" types of
journalism continue to expand, grow more sophisticated and take over
some (but not all) of the reportorial functions once performed by
newspapers. New technologies provide an infinitely more robust feed of
raw data to the public, along with the accompanying range of filtering,
interpreting and commenting mechanisms that the Internet excels in

As these developments expand, our knowledge of the world
will become much less broad. Document-based reporting and
academic-style research will increasingly replace face-to-face
reporting. And the ideal of journalistic objectivity and fairness will
increasingly crumble, to be replaced by more tendentious and
opinionated reports.

The brave new media world will be one of tunnel vision and
self-selected expertise, in which reported pieces are increasingly
devoid of human interaction or human stories, often written by
individuals who do not pretend to have a neutral stance. Raw,
non-mediated video or audio will provide primary stories to anyone who
is interested in them. In this imagined future, the New York Times will
have died and only one or two wire services will still have reporters
in, say, Gaza. In lieu of edited stories will be video interviews with
Gaza inhabitants, as well as commentary and analysis from a vast army
of experts, semi-experts and kibitzers. Consumers can set one info-dial
to "Middle East primary feeds," set a commentary dial to "expert,"
"kibitzer" or "shuffle," set yet another to a targeted archival search
of every academic paper written about Gaza. It will be feast and
famine: There will be far less primary reporting done by professionals
and far more information available to ordinary citizens.

This brave new info-world will have some advantages. So
far, the Internet media revolution has been a huge net plus for
journalism. It has greatly increased the quantity and quality of
available opinion and (to a much lesser degree) news. Trying to figure
out what the truth is about any given subject means reading about it
from as many perspectives as possible, and exponentially more
perspectives are accessible now. From foreign newspapers to brilliant
bloggers, the Internet has given a voice to countless talented and
informed people who would otherwise have no platform. It has empowered readers,
created an army of bloggers who provide much-needed fact-checking and
criticism of the entitled mandarins of the establishment press, and
provided powerful counternarratives to the bland, centrist pablum so
often served up by the "respectable" media.

Moreover, bloggers can also be valuable reporters, albeit
ones who generally don't wear out much shoe leather. As Slate writer
and media critic Jack Shafer has pointed out, some bloggers have done significant research reporting, digging through FOIA documents or unearthing official secrets.

As for the old media, it has not exactly always done a
bang-up job of capturing reality. All too often it has been sclerotic,
incompetent and driven by hidden corporatist, nationalist or
reactionary agendas. The press's catastrophic failure
to question the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq is the most
glaring recent example, but there are many. "Professionalism" can be a
vice, evidenced by the pathologically cozy relationship between many
bigwig Beltway reporters and their government sources. Huffing and
puffing about interloping amateurs all too often conceals the fact that
those amateurs know as much or more about the subject as the
professionals, and are not subject to being bamboozled by "insiders"
with an agenda. Academic Middle East analysts, most of whom probably
never picked up the phone in their life, but know the region's language
and its history, were resoundingly right about the Iraq war. The
professional journalism brigade, with its access to high-level sources
and people on the ground, was disgracefully wrong. And the Internet has
greatly empowered such academics.

The MSM's less than stellar record explains why in online forums
and threads about this subject, many posters welcome the impending end
of the media universe as we know it. But those who are calling for the
demise of traditional media are throwing the baby out with the bath
water -- and the baby is reporting.

There is no substitute for field reporting, in which a
real live human being observes an event while it is happening and talks
to other real, live human beings. It is an immutable fact that
firsthand observation is the building block not just of journalism, but
of all human knowledge. This isn't just true in journalism, but in all
fields, from science to the humanities. Academics acquire their
knowledge through primary sources. Historians value firsthand accounts
more than secondary ones, and give them more weight. The same is true
for the law. An eyewitness to an event has more legal standing than
someone who heard what the eyewitness said later.

If field reporting dies out, the world will become a less
known place. Vast areas will simply not be covered, and those that are
will not be covered from multiple perspectives. Precisely because
reporters are imperfect, because they by necessity capture only a
fragment of reality, it is essential that numerous firsthand accounts
exist. If Reuters, the Times and all the other newspapers with foreign
bureaus have died and only the AP reporter is telling us what happened
in China, readers will be forced to accept his or her version without
being able to compare it. And that faint gleam of empirical evidence
will be lost amid the infinite amount of commentary that will instantly
dominate the Internet.

The information universe today is not, of course,
comprehensive, nor could it ever be. What appears in the newspapers is
a result of editorial whim and financial pressures. But this limited
and capricious hodgepodge of information is far preferable to the
self-selected alternative that awaits us -- it stimulates parts of our
brain that would otherwise atrophy.

It's much easier to consume unfamiliar information in a
newspaper than on the Internet. Because of the physical layout of a
newspaper, you're much more likely to read a story you aren't
interested in than you would if you were online. Even if the same
reported stories were available online, they would not be as widely
read. Online media is tailored to respond to the individual's conscious
desires; it is less capable of stimulating latent ones.

A perfect example of why newspapers must continue to exist appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 1, 2009. Titled "Slain Exile Detailed Cruelty of the Ruler of Chechnya,"
the 3,700-word piece was reported from Vienna, London, Moscow, Oslo and
Chechnya. It obviously took months of work and cost tens if not
hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and expenses. And it
revealed beyond any reasonable doubt that the president of Chechnya,
Ramzan Kadyrov, is a murderous, sadistic thug who personally tortured
many captured dissidents and ordered the assassination of a former
insider who had fled to Vienna.

I would probably not have sought out this story on my own.
But because it was on the front page of the New York Times, I read it.
And as a result, my world expanded significantly.

If this kind of reporting dies out, the global
consequences would be dire. Moral outrage would wither. Regimes would
feel free to commit atrocities with impunity. As the Iraq and Gaza
wars demonstrate, regimes prefer to wage controversial wars in the
dark. Without reporting, dirty little wars would be invisible dirty
little wars.

The civic consequences would be just as calamitous. With
little empirical evidence about the world, the country would divide
further into solipsistic, isolated communities. There would be no
agreement on even the most rudimentary facts: We would look back
nostalgically at those days when "only" half of Americans were so
ill-informed, and susceptible to government propaganda, that they
believed that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11. Rancorous division
into exclusive camps would become even more pronounced than it is now,
making political compromises even less likely. In this ignorant yet
loudly opinionated future, our shared civic culture would degenerate,
and demagogic leaders would flourish.

Karl Marx's prediction that capitalism would end up
devouring itself has not stood up well (although there's a bit of
leg-nibbling going on right now). But his dictum might end up being
true for the news media.

The Internet gives readers what they want; newspapers give
them what they need. And in a culture where the almighty market is
always right, you can always get what you want -- but you can't always
get what you need. In their bottom-line desperation, newspapers are
imitating the Internet. As Michael Hirschorn pointed out in a recent Atlantic article,
papers are giving readers and advertisers what they think they want,
blowing all their money on lifestyle and "consumer-friendly" pieces
rather than on in-depth reporting.

If capitalism wins the battle, the result will be an
unregulated marketplace of ideas in which consumers choose their own
news -- in effect, choose their own reality. Ironically, conservative
devotees of the free market would find themselves living in a postmodern world
right out of a seminar taught by Jacques Derrida. Nietzsche's credo
that "there are no facts, only interpretations" will become our
epistemological motto. In this deconstructed universe, not just
readers, but the very idea of objective reality, would be the ultimate

Historically, the only countervailing force against the
market and the apotheosis of consumers' desires has been the
institutional power of newspapers. Newspapers are institutions that
adhere to a tradition of journalism and have the financial resources to
carry on that tradition. Today, those institutions are threatened as
never before, in part because of the disappearance of old-school
publishers who regarded their media properties as a public trust, in
part because of the rise of new media.

This bleak situation has given rise to a once-unthinkable
notion: removing the news from market forces altogether by subsidizing
it. In a recent Op-Ed
in the New York Times, two business analysts suggested turning
newspapers into "nonprofit, endowed institutions -- like colleges and

Most journalists probably find something vaguely creepy
about this idea; it's a little too high-minded, abstract and
self-congratulatory to fit with their self-image as regular Joes and
Jills. There are also legitimate concerns whether foundations or other
public supporters would influence editorial content or direction. But
the alternative is disturbing.

A world without primary reporting will be literally less
human. Talking to actual, live human beings, as opposed to reading
documents or commentary or what they say online, has an innately
moderating effect on one's approach. A good reporter sees issues in
greater complexity because humans are complex. The Roman playwright
Terence's credo "Nothing human is alien to me" is a noble one. But it
will be harder to believe in it when actual human beings have vanished
from the news. There is a reason why the online world, where humans are
virtual, is prone to flame wars and creepy trolls. It is easier to
despise someone you have never met. As writers who have worked online
know, the simple act of replying courteously to a hostile poster
usually leads them to become much more civil. And that is even truer of
face-to-face interactions.

With all their flaws, traditional media institutions
served as unifying forces in society. No one wants to go back to the
days of network TV or the old Time magazine, when the media served as a
quasi-official info-nanny telling citizens what to think. But a society
without any shared sources of trusted information will be in danger of
fragmenting. The old media acted as an institutional check on
individual passions and prejudices. It served a Lockean function,
upholding the social contract. The new world could be a Hobbesian one,
a war of all against all.

Finally, the death of reporting will dangerously erode the
ideal of objectivity. Newspapers embrace the institutional mission of
objectivity: Their goal is to find out and report the truth about a
given subject, no matter what that truth is. They are not supposed to
go in looking for an answer, or holding preconceived beliefs. Of
course, the distinction between fact and interpretation is only
absolute in the simplest cases -- it breaks down as soon as the event
being covered acquires the least complexity or controversy. Reporters,
like all human beings who are trying to make sense of complex
experiences, must constantly make judgments that go beyond the mere
facts. And the he-said, she-said approach mandated by objectivity can
be ridiculously stupid. If Joe says the sky is blue and Jack, who is
widely known to be a delusional psychotic who has just taken two tabs
of acid, says it's purple with pink polka-dots, is it really necessary
to report what Jack says?

But if perfect objectivity is impossible, that doesn't
mean that it should not be the goal. The reporter's predisposition
toward fact and fairness serves as a kind of ballast, a corrective to
her natural instinct to make up her mind prematurely. And those who
have not been trained and inculcated in an institution dedicated to
objectivity are less likely to be able to do this. Institutions matter.
And traditional journalistic institutions, newspapers in particular,
are weighted toward fairness and objectivity. The Internet is not. Of
course, bloggers or untrained writers are capable of being fair;
indeed, the better bloggers are precisely those who fully and fairly
engage with those who disagree with them. But the blogging ethos as a
whole runs in the opposite direction. Being a reporter does not come
naturally to bloggers.

No one can predict what the new information age will look
like, and my version may be excessively dystopian. But one thing is
indisputable: Reporting must be kept alive. With all its limitations
and faults, it is a light that illuminates the world outside ourselves.
And in an increasingly virtual and solipsistic age, that light is
needed more than ever.

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