(Editor's note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It, published by The New Press in 2011.)
Most journalists are familiar with the arch observation, made famous by Winston Churchill, that history tends to be written “by the victors.” Less known and more cheeky was Churchill’s prediction (mostly accurate, it turned out) that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
To make even preliminary sense of the hotly disputed and remarkably fluid landscape of modern media, it helps to recall Churchill’s axioms about historiography, and recognize that something closer to the inverse is warping our basic view of journalism. It’s the losers, not the winners, who are writing the early historical drafts of this transformational media moment, while those actually making that history—the people formerly known as the audience, in critic Jay Rosen’s apt phrase—are treating their legacy interpreters not with kindness but contempt. So much misunderstanding and breathtakingly wrong-headed analysis tumbles forth from this one paradox.
Imagine for a moment that the hurly-burly history of American retail was chronicled not by reporters and academics but by life-long employees of A&P, a largely forgotten supermarket chain that enjoyed a 75 percent market share as recently as the 1950s. How do you suppose an A&P Organization Man might portray the rise of discount super-retailer Wal-Mart, or organic foods-popularizer Whole Foods, let alone such newfangled Internet ventures as Peapod.com? Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily gobbling up innovation wherever it shoots up.
That is largely where we find ourselves in the journalism conversation of 2012, with a dreary roll call of depressive statistics invariably from the behemoth’s point of view: newspaper job losses, ad-spending cutbacks, shuttered bureaus, plummeting stock prices, major-media bankruptcies. Never has there been more journalism produced or consumed, never has it been easier to find or create or curate news items, and yet this moment is being portrayed by self-interested insiders as a tale of decline and despair.
It is no insult to the hard work and good faith of either newspaper reporters or media-beat writers (and I’ve been both) to acknowledge that their conflict of interest in this story far exceeds that of, say, academic researchers who occasionally take corporate money, or politicians who pocket campaign donations from entities they help regulate, to name two perennial targets of newspaper editorial boards. We should not expect anything like impartial analysis from people whose very livelihoods—and those of their close friends—are directly threatened by their subject matter.
This goes a long way toward explaining a persistent media-criticism dissonance that has been puzzling observers since at least the mid-1990s: Successful, established journalism insiders tend to be the most dour about the future of the craft, while marginalized and even unpaid aspirants are almost giddy about what might come next. More kids than ever go to journalism school; more commencement speeches than ever warn graduates that, sadly, there’s no more gold in them thar hills. Consumers are having palpable fun finding, sharing, packaging, supplementing, and dreaming up pieces of editorial content; newsroom veterans are consistently among the most depressed of all modern professionals.
Every year, like a pack of crows announcing the arrival of winter, at least one and usually several anxious new tomes from big-media lifers pronounce journalism to be on death’s door. In 1999, writing in the introduction to Bill Kovach’s and Tom Rosenstiel’s Warp Speed, legendary author David Halberstam declared that, “The past year has been, I think, the worst year for American journalism since I entered the profession forty-four years ago.” Since then, obviously, things have only gotten worse.
Journalism “may face its greatest threat yet” and could well “disappear,” Kovach and Rosenstiel warned in 2001’s The Elements of Journalism. “The news about the news,” according the subtitle of a 2002 book of the same name by life-long Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, is that “American journalism” is “in peril.” In 2009, Downie one-upped himself, co-writing in a white paper titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” that not only is accountability journalism “at risk,” but that “American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting.”
How did we move so quickly from bemoaning the size and profitability of media companies (Downie 2002) to advocating government subsidies for those same weakened giants (Downie 2009)? Only by mistaking the fate of journalism’s biggest manufacturers with the fate of the industry as a whole—by conflating A&P with the retail business—and then further muddying the waters by confusing the fortunes of big media companies with the health of democracy itself.
Within the Möbius strip of media criticism produced, digested, and praised by current and former mainstream journalists, the most impactful woe-is-media book in 2009 was Pulitzer-winner Alex S. Jones’ Losing the News, where the gravity was right there in the subtitle: “The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy.” Jones’ potent operating metaphor was that the “iron core” of news—not crime blotter sensationalism or infotainment fluff, but foreign coverage, political watchdoggery, and statehouse news—was shrinking, and with it our ability to function as a republic.
But what if the iron core isn’t shrinking?
I debated Jones about his book on Bloggingheads.tv (itself an outlet not remotely thinkable as recently as 1996, the year of James Fallows’ Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy). Challenging the iron core premise, I pointed out that in terms of statehouse coverage, just that morning I had written a blog post for Reason linking to a flurry of last-minute California bills signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which I had gathered through a Google News search taking me to (in addition to more than a half-dozen regional newspapers I wouldn’t normally read) MTV.com, Hip Hop Press, and a boating newsletter. Since there’s no way the Los Angeles Times or Sacramento Bee was going to cover all these laws, I argued, wasn’t this a demonstration of the iron core expanding? Shouldn’t we be happy that it’s easier than ever to find out and publicize what our elected representatives are doing in the wee small hours?
Jones’ response was telling.
“See, I think that’s scandalous. I think that’s appalling,” he said. “Maybe Hip Hop News is a site that inspires you with confidence, but it would seem to me that you’re giving away your confidence pretty cheaply.” The exponential proliferation of news producers—and of our ability to access their product—is no consolation for the fact that the biggest hitters have been taken down a peg. What matters is not that there are more outlets than ever willing to dig up information on and criticize, say, the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, Jones argues, what matters is that the Church-dogging Boston Globe is weaker than it used to be.