If newspapers disappear, will it matter?
Author 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
(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.