Thursday, May 7, 2009

The demise of the newspaper and new paths for public discourse

We have been reading for some time now about the significant number of newspapers that have folded for financial reasons. In my neck of the woods, the Chicago Sun-Times has stopped 12 suburban papers. See here for a number of other examples.

This is unfortunate, but I can’t say that I subscribe to any newspapers myself. Perhaps it’s mostly sentiment that has driven the massive public mourning of print media. In academia there is talk of “bookless libraries” as companies like Google revolutionize the way that we process information, but that’s a rather unrealistic projection. Newspapers, however, are dropping left and right all around us. Here the communication revolution is actually occurring, and it’s worth discussing. I’d like to bring up two issues related to the fall of the newspapers: public accountability and public commentary.

In our school newspaper here at Wheaton College, there was a recent column written on censorship and the role of newspapers in response to a situation at Cedarville University, where a paper was censored and subsequently skipped its last issue of the school year in protest. (I’d add that while Wheaton’s The Record has avoided such problems, our college will not post issues online for similar reasons as Cedarville’s resort to censorship)

The column discussed the value of rigorous critique in newspapers, and mentioned a concern voiced by NYT writer David Brooks in a recent visit to campus that one very real danger in the loss of reporters is the decline in accountability; local, state, and federal meetings open to the public attract relatively few as the majority of people rely upon reporting to hear what is happening. Setting aside those cases where the information is public and available, the toll of the newspaper's demise on accountability is set in even sharper relief by the fact that trained reporters have unique connections to important information that is simply not available to the common person. They play a vital middle-man role, the value of which we may only recognize once it is gone.

The second concern coming with the demise of the newspapers relates to the value of public commentary. While one may watch CNN or read it online, the level of intelligent reflection, substantive information, and even basic grammar has become incredibly stunted as a result of the 24-hour, consumer-driven news industry. Even more textured sources like the Huffington Post tend to remain within the usual ideological clichés. Good commentary can certainly still be found, in editorial sections, in magazines like The Economist, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker, and in numerous blogs. Our own blog, in fact, began with the intention of supplementing public discourse that we saw as lacking this criterion. But the lack of a distinct print culture strikes me as a worrisome drift from the understanding of extended comment as important. Witness the stupidity of the comment boxes at most online news outlets... setting aside those columns that obviously attract a generally more educated readership, the average consumer of news these days does not appear to have internalized any really formative personal consequences from it.

I don't want to be all doom and gloom. As far as I can tell, public discourse is adapting rather well to new technologies and other formats. Also, we should not assume that the age of newspapers was some sort of golden era where all columns were above average and all readers were attentive to critical reflection (I think Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech conveys both the ordinary and the hopelessly utopian in this whole idea). It is worth considering, however, what unique power structures are being toppled here, how the populist alternative of blogging and more local ventures can and cannot fill that vacuum, and what aspects of newspaper culture we will have to concentrate most decidedly on to perpetuate or correct.

Good news and bad news on the state of the news

Evan's critique of the consolidation of print media is both prescient and pedestrian - and I should say I don't intend that evaluation to be insulting to him at all. Indeed, I think the fact that it is both prescient and pedestrian is a positive sign. People are broadly aware of the problem, and there is a real grassroots constituency that is making exactly these points.

Actually, what I found most surprising about Evan's post was that it was decidedly more negative than the usual narrative you hear, and it is precisely this relatively negative outlook that I want to address. The more common storyline, I believe, is that local media and print media is dying at the same time that TV news is being dumbed down and sub-divided into ideological camps. Polarization in and of itself doesn't have to be bad, but the polarization we are seeing now seems to be contributing more heat than light to the debate. Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity may personally be genuine in what they are reporting, but the market-segmenting arrangement between MSNBC and Fox itself is more akin to a cable-news Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dividing the market in half, than it is to a meaningful debate between two differing perspectives). In the no-man's land that's left in the middle (I suppose this would be Warsaw if I were to continue the World War II analogy), we have CNN that increasingly descends into flashy gimmicks that avoid the ideological confrontations of Fox and MSNBC - and CNN (and other middle of the road sources) end up avoiding real reporting in the process.

A Cable News Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

That's the downside of the "usual narrative".

The upside is "Web 2.0"; the democratization of media as a result of Youtube, blogs, and even Wikipedia. The story goes that while the print media is failing to adapt, and cable news is failing to deliver, the blogosphere is creating a network of private citizen-reporters prepared to keep the elites (both in positions of power and in the media itself) honest.

I see two problems with this "good news/bad news" story, which may help to buttress Evan's concerns. First, many blogs themselves rely on re-posting, re-analyzing, or simply aggregating the work done by the "mainstream media". Obviously this serves an important chastizing function, but it is unclear what the blogosphere would look like without the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. Could they pick up the slack and create new news? The beauty of blogs is that anybody can create one, absorb information, and reorganize their own thoughts. We do this all the time. But that isn't necessarily conducive to uncovering new stories.

My second concern centers on what blogs don't allow us to do. What bloggers can't do (at least out of their blogging revenue - if they even have that) is buy a plane ticket to Mexico City to investigate swine flu, and then stop by Atlanta on the way back to the office to consult with the CDC about what all this really means. This is the work of real reporters - the very reporters that are being laid off or re-branded by newspapers and cable TV shows. Some of this investigating can be done through sites like Youtube. Indeed, in many cases the mainstream media is now using videos posted by private citizens as material for their own shows (the George Allen "macaca" incident, linked above, comes to mind here). But as a general rule, bloggers don't have the access that traditional reporters do, and they also don't have the same reporting standards. This isn't to say that there aren't objective and rigorous bloggers - but there isn't the same obligation to double-check sources and edit material. By the time some blog stories get debunked, the story itself is so thoroughly embedded that often it can't be dislodged (i.e. - that Obama is a Muslim).

What I'd like to emphasize is that neither of these burdens should be insurmountable. Bloggers can and already have started creating new content. You don't have to fly to Mexico City or Atlanta these days, because there are local bloggers in those locations that can be networked with. The CDC can be reached by email, as can the Mexican government. Pictures and videos to highlight the blog post are a Google search (and Photoshop session) away. As for standards, I think the question of how much reporting standards really help is an open one. They may prevent certain news from reaching us that we would have wanted to hear. The National Enquirer - a notoriously low standard publication - actually gets the story right a lot of the time, and is therefore able to break news long before the "mainstream media" feels comfortable reporting it. They proved that this past campaign season, when they were first to break the (quite accurate) story of John Edwards's affair with a staffer. Even if problems do occur, debunking things is practically an American past-time. We love doing it, and even if many people take the original story hook, line, and sinker, we practically can guarantee that it won't go unchallenged.

I think cautious optimism is the way to approach the restructuring of the news industry. Evan's concerns are completely valid, but I think it's important to recognize that what we are seeing is what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction". Old industries are collapsing precisely because they are being made obsolete by new industries. My guess is the blogosphere will pick up the slack and we will be fine, and in fact we'll probably see the reemergence of many traditional news organizations in this new medium (as we have already seen with The Atlantic, whose website is more of a blogging network than it is an online magazine). The question is - what kind of sneaky stuff will those in power be able to slip by with while the blogosphere is still learning the ropes? If recent history is any indication, I'm happy to say that I think the answer is "not much".