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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Decline And Fall

by dday

This week we have seen perhaps a tipping point in the decline of American newspapers. Hearst announced they may sell or close the San Francisco Chronicle, a month after they said the same about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The two newspapers in Philadelphia, the Inquirer and the Daily News, filed for bankruptcy, as did the Journal Register Company, which owns 20 papers in the Northeast. And the Rocky Mountain News in Denver ran its last edition yesterday.

As much as we don't want to admit it, some of this is inevitable. The medium of delivered print newspapers in an environment where anyone can hop online and read virtually any article around the nation or the world is going to be threatened. That advertising revenue is falling because of the economic meltdown is just accelerating this decline. While newspaper websites generally do quite well, they haven't been able to monetize the content to a degree that's economically feasible. And the overall threat here is the death of news reporting, not the physical newspapers themselves. At least that's the view of Gary Kamiya.

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 low.

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 generating.

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.

Paul Starr makes a similar argument in The New Republic, saying that the loss of newspapers will most impact local news coverage and lead to a rise in local corruption.

Now, I agree with this to an extent. The breadth of material presented in a newspaper is not entirely likely to be replicated online, at least not at any one place. More things would happen in the shadows in a post-newspaper world. And I hope for that not to happen. At the same time, there's a lot of redundancy in newspapers. Dozens if not hundreds of different writers across the country cover the exact same Obama address to Congress that I watched with my eyes as well, and can just as easily form an opinion on. There is an argument that local papers should focus on local reporting, and get their national news from national sources, which would probably still offer enough of a variety.

This breaks down when the papers that are able to weather the decline, the ones with the highest reputation and the broadest base of reporters, who could funnel news across the country and present themselves as an established brand, soil themselves with demonstrably mendacious columnists that call into question the editorial aptitude of the whole project.

Clearly, the main cause of the crisis is structural/technological shifts in the media and economic landscape. But a small number of news organizations are actually well-positioned, in principle, to benefit over the long run from these changes. Papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have strong brands and the possibility of becoming national news organizations that partially fill the space left empty by the receding metro dailies in Detroit, Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere. But The Washington Post, by standing behind the claim that up is down if George Will says that is is, is pissing that brand away. Rather than complaining to me, people who work at, or care about, The Washington Post need to complain to Fred Hiatt and ensure that something gets done.

Meanwhile, one of the Post’s main competitors in the world of papers with potential to attract a national audience is The New York Times. So faced with a humiliating abrogation of basic responsibilities by its competitor, does the Times take the opportunity to pour some salt in the wounds? No! Instead, out comes Andrew Revkin with a false equivalence article painting Will with the same brush as Al Gore. Will’s sin is to say that the world is not getting warmer when, in fact, it is. Gore’s sin was to say that warming is happening (it is) and to illustrate the problems with this trend by referring to a chart that Revkin deems unduly alarmist but that Gore found in The New York Times. Hm.

And since this was written, George Will responded to that falsely equivalent NYT article with a pissy rant standing by the substance of his global warming denialist column of the week prior. In doing so he defends the substance of a data point he included about sea ice levels in Antarctica, despite the climate research center where Will got the data has publicly disavowed it. And then, Will's editor Fred Hiatt defends his writer in some of the weirdest ways possible.

Hiatt insists Will's entitled to his opinion about the global warming facts because those facts are just too complicated--too unknowable--and who the hell are readers to claim otherwise? Hiatt told CJR:

"If you want to start telling me that columnists can’t make inferences which you disagree with—and, you know, they want to run a campaign online to pressure newspapers into suppressing minority views on this subject—I think that’s really inappropriate. It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject — so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him."

That sound you hear is Hiatt digging the Post an even deeper and more embarrassing hole.

I have two favorite parts. The first was Hiatt's insistence that Will has every right to draw inference--to make claims of fact in his column--based on data that most scientists reject. Good Lord, what is Will not allowed to do in a Post column? And does the Op-Ed page maintain any guidelines?

And second, I chuckled when Hiatt insisted that if people disagree with Will's published falsehoods, they shouldn't try to pressure the paper to publish corrections, they should, y'know, "debate him." Right, because Will and Post editors have been so open and willing to address--to debate--the controversy.

Now, to his credit, the Post's ombusdman will write tomorrow that Will was wrong on the science, and that the paper should have addressed this more quickly. But clearly there is a problem with accountability at the Post when it comes to their star columnists.

(By the way, good for John Kerry for trying to get some measure of accountability by himself.)

But this is a serious concern. With the viability of the newspaper model looking less clear, we will necessarily shrink the amount of reporters covering both local and national issues. Online sources cannot fill the gap without substantial resources (endowments, anyone?). Therefore we vest more power in the fourth estate in the hands of a number of established brands. And yet those brands are gradually proving themselves unworthy of the power. It shouldn't look unfavorably on the entire profession, and the many fine reporters working under these brands, but it inevitably does.

It would be nice to say that, after being trashed and abused by major media for so long, that we don't need journalism. But we clearly do. And when they damage their reputations, it actually affects all of us.