Thursday, August 23, 2007

The newspaper today and tomorrow

Russell Baker looks at newspapers and journalism in the NYRB:

Goodbye to Newspapers?
It is an interesting article on two levels. First, he touches on nearly every problem confronting newspapers and journalists. Second, his analysis reveals the blind spots that prevent those inside of journalism from addressing those problems.

The economic problem

The main villain of the piece is Wall Street and the profit motive. This is now received wisdom among journalists. They are correct that revenue growth has slowed or even declined at most newspapers. This has resulted in waves of retrenchment and layoffs as managers try to keep expenses in line with cash flow.

Baker, like most journalists, sees this as a species of evil rather than as a simple fact of economic life. He takes it for granted that these cutbacks destroy vital reporting resources. It never occurs to him that the economic equation suggests that the newspapers were spending money on low-value-added activities.

When customers no longer want to buy your product, it is time to look at what you are selling and how you make it.

The article also reveals another telling blindspot. When journalists write about how “the market is killing quality journalism”, they usually focus on the last 5-10 years. Yet newspapers have been dying off for sixty years or more. What is different now?

Baker offers a telling quote from former LA Times editor John Carroll that provides some insight into this question:

Someday, I suspect, when we look back on these forty years, we will wonder how we allowed the public good to be so deeply subordinated to private gain....
Carroll’s golden age coincides with the rise of the one newspaper town. Why was that a good thing? How could New York be better off when the Times did not have to compete with the Herald-Tribune? Why is journalism the rare business where monopolies serve the customer better than competition?

I doubt that the reading public was or is better off. The owners were because monopolies provide a nice stream of predictable earnings. The newsroom liked that the owners were fat and happy because as long as the income statement looked good the owners did not interfere with content. Editors and reporters were free to chases awards, collect bigger paychecks, and indulge their ideological obsessions. Local monopolies also gave journalists bigger megaphones and a de facto victory in “explanation space”.

The golden age, in short, rested on a temporary set of conditions in which economics and technology favored news monopolies. The readers never wanted it. That much became clear when technology began to offer more choices.

The technology problem

Baker is scathing when it comes to the contributions the internet can make to journalism:

How the Internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you that it will. At present about 80 percent of all news available on the Internet originates in newspapers, according to John Carroll's estimate, and no Internet company has the resources needed to gather and edit news on the scale of the most mediocre metropolitan daily. Moreover, corporations like Google and Yahoo apparently have no interest in going into serious journalism. (Google has an automated news site, Google News, which sifts through hundreds of online newspapers and news agency reports; and Yahoo includes news agency reports on its Yahoo News site. But neither fields its own reporting staff or provides its own news coverage.)

At present the Internet is basically an electronic version of the ten-year-old boy on a bicycle who used to toss the newspaper on the front porch: an ingenious circulation device

He completely misses the point on this score. The boy on the bike delivered one product: that mediocre daily. The internet delivers content from around the world. With a few clicks of a mouse the engaged reader can scan a front page that far outdistances the dull product put out by his local monopoly paper.

That is a key point. The web breaks the power that editors once had to define what the news is.

Baker is also wrong to treat “news gathering”as the primary activity of a newspaper. The vast majority of their resources go to other activities (editing, commentary, speculation, trivia) rather than gathering hard information about important matters.

John Corry made an important point about the changing definition of news in an interview with CSPAN in 1994:

The other day, on a Sunday, what was it? -- a week ago Sunday, I think, and I picked up The New York Times, and there, page one, there were seven stories on page one. I counted them. And now in the old days -- old only being 10 or 15 years ago -- the news journalistic philosophy was that you would give a snapshot of the world in the previous 24 hours: What happened yesterday all over the world? But the other Sunday, I picked up the paper and I looked at the seven page-one stories and not one story had a yesterday or a last night in the lead. All seven stories were about something that will happen or might happen or conceivably could happen some time in the future. Well, it's a different kind of journalism.
Spend five minutes with any paper and you will see that the problem has only gotten worse. Instead of hard news (what happened, what is happening), we get pointless ephemera (what might happen, who is ahead now in a campaign where the election is six months away).

Those who worry about the future of newsgathering should be appalled that resources are wasted on pointless trivia. They offer nothing to the reader (potential customer) who wants hard news. Yet they are expensive and hurt the paper’s brand.

Worst of all, some of these activities (e.g. punditry, commentary) are costly productions that compete directly with the product of amateurs.

The blogger problem

Baker is surprisingly generous to bloggers:

Blogging is a more interesting development, perhaps because bloggers are so passionate about it. It is a valuable restraint on careless and sloppy journalism, for the vigilance of the bloggers misses not the slightest error or the least omission, and the fury of their rage is terrible to bear. Committed bloggers insist that they are practicing journalism just as surely as a correspondent like John Burns is practicing journalism when reporting on the Iraq war from Baghdad for The New York Times. Anyone wishing to debate the point must be ready to argue all night and well into next week. What is indisputable is that practically every blogger can now be a columnist. With vast armies of columnists blogging away, it seems inevitable that a few may eventually produce something original, arresting, and refreshing and so breathe new life into this worn-out journalistic form.
Note, however, the clever sleight of hand. He chooses to compare bloggers to war correspondents. The comparison can only make the journalistic pretensions of bloggers look ridiculous. OTOH, the daily work of most journalists in no way resembles the work of John Burns in Iraq.

A better comparison might be KC Johnson vs. Duff Wilson in the Duke lacrosse case. That was anything but a victory for the professionals.

Mocking bloggers is good sport for journalists. It does little to solve the problems of newspapers which is Baker’s professed concern. It is too bad that he glossed over the important point he touched on here.

If the newspaper column is a “worn-out journalistic form”, why do papers pour so many resources into it? The Times, for example, has a boatload of highly paid journalists churning out columns by the yard. Why spend so much on a product that has to compete with free commentary on the Internet and which has no qualitative advantage over the best blogging?

If newsgathering is so important, why does the Times spend money on sports pundits like Selena Roberts? Wouldn’t that money be better spend on more reporters who break news?

Journalists rarely raise this issue. They are part of a guild and a guild’s first aim is to protect its members. All its members.

The guild problem

The need to protect all guild members at all times hurts journalism in several ways. First, reflexive defensiveness lowers the credibility of the profession. To an outsider, all the fine words about integrity and truth ring hollow as we watch working journalists offer lame justifications for guild members who did not live up to those standards. It is even worse when those justifications include attacks on those who exposed those failings.

In addition, how can newspapers improve if they refuse to acknowledge the areas that need improvement? Press criticism by insiders usually ends up concluding that “over all our guys did a good job”. (See here, here, and here.)

No where is this more clear than when it comes to the guild’s heroic myths. Even Baker falls victim to it:

What became of heroes? Journalists used to dine out on the deeds of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during Watergate; of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Malcolm Browne in Vietnam; of "Punch" Sulzberger and Kay Graham risking everything to publish the Pentagon Papers.
Forty years on and working journalists prefer legends to history. (See here for Vietnam and here for Watergate.)

The bias problem

When it comes to the MSM’s image the question of bias generates the most controversy. Surveys show that many Americans think the press tilts left. The blogosphere has generated millions of words on this issue alone.

In almost any other controversy journalists take the position that “where there is smoke, there is fire.” On the bias issue, however, they drop that attitude. Baker addresses this point but only to dismiss it. To him, the bias issue is just so much political spin:

For years, there has been an effective campaign by political conservatives to depict the press as a false messenger spreading negativity and poisoning minds with leftist bias. Books on the theme become best sellers. Political "hosts" on round-the-clock news stations repeat the message tirelessly.
That might reassure a true believer, but it ignores the myriad examples of reporting “mistakes” that serve a liberal agenda. Moreover, the bias issue persists and resonates because we have all seen examples where reporters get the facts grievously wrong. We do not take it on faith because Karl Rove or Rush Limbaugh told us so; we know for sure because, on a specific issue, we recognize the gross and laughable errors a reporter makes.

For some, it is seeing a story on semi-automatic weapons that uses video of a full-auto AK-47. For others, it is 60 Minutes hyping the dangers of the Audi 5000 with no understanding of engine torque and braking power. It could be medical procedures, the drug approval process, the written opinion of a Supreme Court decision, the specific teaching of their denomination, or a doctored photo. The net result is that the reader suspects that Big Journalism values its agenda over diligent reporting or honest analysis.

The striking think about this constellation of problems is that they reinforce each other. Readers who are angered by shallow or biased reporting are less likely to remain (or become) subscribers now that technology offers more choices. Hence, the economic problem gets worse. At the same time, the self-protective reflex of the guild hinders newspapers ability to adapt and improve.

I wonder if anyone at the New York Times has ever studied how GM acted in 1982?

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