January 14, 2009

If newspapers disappear, will it matter?


JD LasicaAuthor and marketer extraordinaire Seth Godin has a provocative new post: When newspapers are gone, what will you miss?

As regular readers know, I worked in print newsrooms for the better part of 20 years before transitioning to the online medium, and I've been harsh in my criticism of news organizations for not embracing the digital medium faster and smarter. But I can't agree with Seth's bottom line, and here's why:

Comics are even better online, and I don't think we'll run out of those.

We won't run out of comics, but we will run out of the most talented comics, who will choose to do something else rather than draw for an audience of thousands rather than millions, especially when they'll have to do it for free rather than as a career.

After several other items where the online medium is better suited than print — I agree with Seth there — he gets to the heart of things:

What's left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent
coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I
worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or
the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage.
I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official
needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of
legislation when there isn't a passionate, unbiased reporter there to
explain it to us.

But then I see the in depth stories about the gowns to be worn to
the inauguration or the selection of the White House dog and I wonder
if newspapers are the most efficient way to do this anyway.

This is a familiar lament. But the truth is that the flash and trash of dumbed-down coverage is what we're already getting in spades on the Web, and it's not fair to lump the hundreds and thousands of quality, solidly reported local stories and dozens of in-depth pieces, national stories and investigative reports with the fluffy stories that make all of this go down easier. 

Punchline: if we really care about the investigation and the
analysis, we'll pay for it one way or another. Maybe it's a public
good, a non profit function. Maybe a philanthropist puts up money for
prizes. Maybe the Woodward and Bernstein of 2017 make so much money
from breaking a story that it leads to a whole new generation of

The reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap
(compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring
it to us.)

Here's where I think Seth's argument is seriously off-base. The reality is that this kind of public-interest journalism has never been supported by the public. The investigative reporting and in-depth reports produced in the modern era (from Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame reports right up to modern coverage) have been loss leaders for news networks and newspapers, which is why they have been the first thing cut in recent years as media consolidation works in favor of shareholders' returns rather than the public interest.

We won't pay for it, because we never have.

Nor is it cheap. Investigative and enterprise reporting are the most expensive forms of journalism in almost any newsroom, column inch for column inch, because the projects require weeks or months of sustained reporting and result in a single splash or a short-lived series.

Ask any journalist who's done in-depth or investigative reporting about budget cuts, and the kinds of stories that are going uncovered, and you'll get an earful, I promise you. And this doesn't even take into account the closing of foreign news bureaus.

Yes, there will continue to be coverage of the billions of dollars in fraud and waste in reconstruction boondoggles in Iraq by AlterNet and similar publications, but their readership will be in the tens or hundreds of thousands rather than the hundreds of millions that a big story would command in the mainstream press. When newspapers are gone, accountability will suffer, abuses will grow, and our democracy will be the poorer.

Is there an answer? No one has found one yet. My experience with foundations is that they are even more ultra-conservative than news institutions and can hardly afford to rock the boat of corporate America or state or federal governments. I'm about to meet up with David Cohn, the founder of Spot.us, which is crowd-sourcing investigative and local journalism, but even if such a praiseworthy effort grows and expands, there is not a chance that it can replace the kind of in-depth and investigative journalism found in the best American newspapers on a daily basis. (I know David agrees on that score.) A few online publications will flourish (the Huffington Post, but only because it adds celebrity trash to its bread and butter of politics and public policy), and individual bloggers will commit terrific random acts of journalism that command widespread attention, but these will prove to be sporadic rather than sustained.

I believe that more than half of the 1,440 or so daily U.S. newspapers will disappear in the next seven to 10 years — on my more pessimistic days, I put the death rate in the three- to five-year range. And despite the myopia of a generation of print editors and the unalloyed greed of many publishers and corporate chains, we'll be less informed about issues in our local communities and on the national stage than we are today. Newspapers don't matter, but journalism does, and we haven't come up with a sustainable business model to report journalism that matters.

JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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9 thoughts on “If newspapers disappear, will it matter?

  1. As wise as Seth Godin is, I have to go with Mr. Lasica on this issue. As a former Washington Post investigative reporter for 13 years (and a staff writer for another nine years at the city magazine, The Washingtonian), I know how long it can take to develop a story that requires investigation. And the unpleasant truth is that there are very few web sites that can support that kind of reporting.

    A web story can, indeed, create big waves–I think back to the early days of The Drudge Report. But the reason Drudge got noticed was that there were newspapers that transmitted his reports to a larger world.

    I used to know how to advise young journalists. I’d generally suggest they start out at a small or medium-sized newspaper, learn to write clearly and to report fairly and then move on to a larger paper or magazine. That’s not advice I can offer today as newspapers cut staff and opt for more fluff than substance.

    I applaud the world-wide reach of the Internet and the chance it gives anyone to voice their thoughts. But if you set aside opinion writing, that leaves research and reporting. And the big question is, Who will support that?

    I really don’t expect foundations or companies to do so. But if an open society is to flourish and if the bad guys are to be exposed, a vigorous press is necessary. It remains to be seen if the Internet can muster the muscle to provide objective (OK, as objective as is humanly possible) reporting. And if there will eventually come to be a platform that can support investigative reporting.

  2. JD, thanks for this – I read Seth’s post (alerted by David Cohn’s tweet) earlier today. He writes, “I’m not worried about how muckrakers will make a living.” Glad he’s not. I am. It’s an issue we confront at MoJo every day. The truth is hard to accept but it’s there: the numbers just aren’t adding up right now. At the moment, there aren’t simple answers to it what will come next. That makes for an incredibly exciting – and terrifying – moment. One thing for sure – we’re in for one hell of a ride.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    Comics: Scott Adams is doing great, and so is a new guy (http://xkcd.com/). It sure beats being a poet.

    As for the public ‘paying’ for muckraking, I think 60 minutes is proof that they’ll pay with attention. The good news is that the web doesn’t require the gloss and smiley filler that TV does.

    Mother Jones has the best shot it has had in years. Joshua Micah Marshall is reaching far more people than MJ ever did, I think, and the opportunities to monetize this are significant.

    What we see on the web is this: the status quo always says NO NO NO and then one motivated individual builds a successful niche and profits (techcrunch, pianoworld) and then say, “well sure, but that’s a special case.”

    Get ready for a lot of special cases.

  4. Hi JD,
    Thanks for writing this.

    The most recent evidence I can think of for needing investigative reporting is Nicholas Kristof’s work on sex slavery around the world for the NYTimes. It’s not cheap sending someone to Thailand or Cambodia to investigate things that take time.

    But two days ago, Barabara Boxer and Hillary Clinton talked about his reports during HC’s confirmation hearings for Secretary of State.

    Honestly, I read Seth Godin’s piece and thought, what is he thinking? It struck me as incredibly selfish and without the forethought necessary to discuss the press and it’s role in a democracy.

    People who create media that is more than a small bit need to be paid to do it, whether they make video, or travel around the world to connect the dots to tell complex stories, or comics makers who day in and day out, exhaust themselves creating.

    And we’ll suffer when only a few things are investigated and corruption flourishes because no one is watching. It’ll be Bush era x10 or x100 or whatever. We need investigative reporting as a rule, not a “special case” like Techcrunch because someone figures out a 1 to 1 business model.


  5. And for the record: I totally agree with J.D. on the limits of Spot.Us.

    As I say: Will this replace/fund entire newsrooms… no.

    Spot.Us is a drop in the bucket. It is coming at a time when every drop helps… but it is still just a drop.

  6. take it easy, Nobody is going to disappear,…
    Newspapers will never disappear, just like books and magazines will never disappear, they will evolve, get pricier, but not disappear, because they provide something the web never ever will, what is that?

    it’s the feeling of holding a real newspaper in your hand, which is part of the experience, which cannot be replaced by gazing into a screen.

    why was this never considered? is it not important?

    this pitching madison avenue, vs digital marketing debate, is old and getting quite boring…

    Listen folks wakeup, noone is going to disappear, they will co-exist together, and you wouldn’t want it any other way.

  7. nythemes, a number of large daily newspapers are already on the verge of collapse. The Newark Star Ledger came close to closing last year, I hear. The Tribune Co. filed for bankruptcy protection. McClatchy has a huge debt burden.

    A *lot* of newspapers are going away in the next few years. The only question is how many and how fast.

  8. Well stated and a good corrective to an interesting and provocative article that still had its facts wrong, especially about investigative journalism. It’s part of the checks and balances of our system of government and without it, we’re much poorer as a country