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How we will survive without newspapers

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To save what's left of the newspaper industry, serial entrepreneur Steve Brill has launched a new startup, Journalism Online, which will help news organizations charge for their digital content. So far he has convinced at least 506 people in America that this is a terrific idea. They're all publishers who have agreed to participate in the venture, but you have to start somewhere, right?

In related news, the Associated Press says it's on the verge of creating articles that can perform investigative journalism even after they've been filed—a "tracking beacon" embedded in these stories will alert the A.P. when websites quote them without authorization. Meanwhile, Dan Rather thinks we should add "editor in chief" to the growing list of Barack Obama's duties. "I want the president to convene a nonpartisan, blue-ribbon commission to assess the state of the news as an institution and an industry and to make recommendations for improving and stabilizing both," the former CBS anchorman said in an August Washington Post op-ed. "This is a crisis that, with no exaggeration, threatens our democratic republic at its core."

Do you want to know the really bad news? Despite all the layoffs, buy-outs, and shutdowns that have afflicted the newspaper industry in the last year, there are still 46,700 newsroom employees working at the nation's 1,411 dailies, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors' 2009 census. That means we've still got years of alarmist op-ed pieces, Hail Mary revenue schemes, and Hail Congress calls for subsidies and rule changes before every last school board meeting in America goes unmonitored and we descend into chaos, corruption, and life without paid classified ads.

Newspapers, their passionate boosters maintain, are a kind of civic Pilates, the institution that keeps the core of our democratic republic as tight and toned as Megan Fox's midsection. TV news can show us war zones, and radio news may offer us aerial assessments of traffic jams, but newspaper news does the real heavy lifting of journalism. It sorts fact from rumor. It shines light on government murk and corporate malfeasance and helps our citizenry make informed and rational decisions. Without healthy newspapers, we're just Myanmar with better department stores and less stylish military uniforms.

That's the rallying cry of the newspaper industry's saviors, anyway. As Jack Shafer memorably put it in Slate, this narrative reduces newspapers to a "compulsory cheat sheet for democracy." They deserve better than that. Throughout the 20th century, our daily broadsheets and tabloids played a far richer role in our culture. They deepened our spiritual lives with horoscopes. They kept our minds sharp with crossword puzzles and the Jumble. They helped us track our favorite TV shows and paid for themselves by offering great deals on detergent. In their lighter moments, they delighted us with the cartoon antics of lasagna-loving cats.

Yet all that stuff has made the transition to the Web just fine. In fact, the only component of traditional newspapers that the Web has thoroughly destroyed is the classifieds. Those ads used to be pithy and reliable, because it used to cost money to place one. If you had to fork over $20 to sell a couch, you wouldn't bother trying to sell some smelly, worn flea farm. Now, when it costs nothing to attempt to unload it, what have you got to lose except some potential buyer's valuable time? Thanks to Craigslist, the once-useful domain of classified ads has become a haven for junk peddlers, scam artists, poor spellers, and the long-winded.

News, on the other hand, is doing great on the Web. While newspaper loyalists are forever touting the original reporting that appears in your morning fish wrap as the factor that distinguishes it from the hordes of opinion-spouting bloggers, what the Web has really revealed is how much territory newspapers have left either underreported or completely untouched. Newspapers never systematically reviewed school-teachers, for example, and now they've been scooped by the angry third-grade muckrakers who post at RateMyTeacher.com. They never systematically reviewed the lying, cheating "dumpster dawgs" that women should avoid at all costs, but the citizen journalists at DontDateHimGirl.com cover such territory thoroughly, supplying names, addresses, employer information, and more. When I want to learn something about the new hardware store that just opened in my neighborhood, I find the answers at Yelp.com, not in the San Francisco Chronicle. When I want to know what all those sirens that woke me up last night were responding to, I search for clues on Everyblock.com. Call this information trivial if you like, but it's certainly serving the local public interest in a way that, say, a New York Times dispatch from the front lines of the fish wars on East Africa's Migingo Island can't touch.

That's not to say that old-fashioned reporting isn't hard and valuable work. It is, and as David Simon, former reporter turned champion of soon-to-be-former reporters and creator of The Wire, explained at John Kerry's Senate panel on the "future of journalism" last May, it's no job for part-timers and gadflies. It "requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending."

But it's not as if newspapers are the only entities that recognize the value of reporting. Half a decade ago, at the height of blogomania, professional online journalists may have been the unicorns of the Web, but now they're becoming relatively common. Give at least some of the credit to TMZ, the celebrity gossip site funded by AOL and Warner Bros. When it launched in 2005, it put boots on the ground in the mean cul-de-sacs of Bel Air and Malibu, and the huge readership it attracted almost overnight by breaking big stories such as Mel Gibson's DUI arrest and Lindsay Lohan's SUV rampage served as a vivid reminder that even in the age of blogs and social networks, paid staffers and original reporting still have value.

In short order, we've seen the rise of Politico, which launched in 2007 with a mandate to report on Capitol Hill with a TMZ-like intensity and now has an editorial staff of 75. We've seen the creation of ProPublica.org, the "non-profit newsroom" funded by the billionaire left-wing philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler to produce work that "shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong." The Huffington Post, like a horrible disease or an endangered species, relied upon the altruism of celebrity volunteers in its earliest days, but now it has a paid editorial staff of 60 (along with 3,000 unpaid contributors). The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit set to launch in November with a mandate of serving as the state's watchdog, has hired away editors and reporters from Texas Monthly, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the El Paso Times

In an effort to artificially preserve the power of dying monopolists, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced a bill in March that would give tax breaks to traditional newspapers if they converted to nonprofit status. That same month, John Nichols and Robert McChesney, authors of Saving Journalism: The Soul of Democracy, published an essay in The Nation calling for "government intervention" in the form of $60 billion worth of "tax policies, credit policies and explicit subsidies" to save newspapers and educate schoolkids about what "differentiates good journalism from the other stuff."

Oh, for the days when the free and independent press was a little more circumscribed! That, in the end, is the theme that has always underscored the case for newspapers in the Web era, even when they weren't on their deathbeds yet: We need them to protect us from how free and independent public discourse has become! But we don't. Journalism may be in flux right now, but the long-term trend is toward more transparency, more news, a better-informed citizenry. We're entering a new Light Ages, and when the last newspaper dies, thousands of sources will be rushing to break the sad news first. One of them might even be Dan Rather. His HDNet series Dan Rather Reports has a Twitter account, and one of his staffers posts to it regularly. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

NEXT: If You're the Vice President, Can You Still Be the Underdog?

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  1. From our November issue, Greg Beato explains how we will survive without newspapers.

    Oh, “we” can survive just fine, thank you – it’s my pet parrakeet that will suffer in the end . . .

  2. If the internet is killing the newspaper, why aren’t foreign papers going bankrupt to? I haven’t heard any word of any of the UK rags going under. Are they subsidized by the government? Do the Brits just not have access to the internet? Or do American papers just suck and can’t attract any readers?

    1. The large papers in the UK have much better websites, and much more loyal readerships. Example, I grew up in Kansas City where we have the Kansas City Star. I read it, because it was the only paper. I have no loyalty to it whatsoever.

      But I think a large part of it is very reliable, working in-depth websites, something American newspapers are still working on. I know quite a few American college students who have their homepage set to the Guardian.

    2. “If the internet is killing the newspaper, why aren’t foreign papers going bankrupt to?”

      Because they’re not TEH LIBERAL BIAS!!!1!. Duh. Everybody knows that U.S. newspapers are dying because some portion of the small portion of people who religiously follow politics have suddenly abandoned them. Liberal bias, liberal bias, liberal bias. Whereas foreign papers are all very fair and balanced.

    3. But really, John: British papers are hardly faring better than American ones. Their newsrooms have been slashes, their ad revenues have plummeted, etc. The journalists over there call it a “crisis” the same way their U.S. cousins do…

      1. Sigh.

        Their newsrooms have been slashed.

        Grumble.

      2. Exactly. The Independent, part of the suffering Independent News and Media stable, is losing money. The Guardian is doing poorly too, as are all the Irish national papers – both dailies and Sundays. Ad revenue has cratered. Many papers were dependent on property and financial services ads. Whoops.

  3. First of all, most of the newspapers in the country don’t even do their own reproting. They reprint stories from the AP and Reuters.

    Secondly, this administration seems to think that “real” journalism equals “journalism that we agree with”, so I don’t want them anywhere near making funding decisions about which newspapers should get money.

    1. “First of all, most of the newspapers in the country don’t even do their own reproting. They reprint stories from the AP and Reuters.”

      The Associated Press is an association of newspapers. The vast majority of its content comes from the reporting done by those member papers. (And the majority of its staff have been rewrite/editor types, not reporters.)

      1. Okay, so they are basically swapping content with eachother. It’s still not like they are doing all their own reporting. You could read the content directly on the AP website, and they could collect stories from bloggers and freelancers.

        1. “Okay, so they are basically swapping content with eachother. It’s still not like they are doing all their own reporting. You could read the content directly on the AP website, and they could collect stories from bloggers and freelancers.”

          Eh? How are they not “doing their own reporting”? I just explained it to you: The vast majority of AP content is the “own reporting” of newspapers.

          No newspapers = no AP.

          That is unless, as you say, AP starts acquiring its content from the human beings called “bloggers and freelancers” rather than the human beings called “newspaper staffers.” But now you’re begging the question. That’s the whole nub of this discussion in the first place: “how journalism will survive without newspapers.”

          So you haven’t made an argument. You’ve merely made an assertion (Why, journalism will survive via “bloggers and freelancers”!) without any actual support. You may very well be correct, but you haven’t shown why you would be correct.

          1. Okay, but I don’t see how the kind of journalism in which one newspaper writes a story, and then the exact same story is copied by every other newspaper qualifies as the kind of journalism we can’t live without.

            That’s a major reason I don’t bother reading local newspapers any more – the content is a carbon copy of something I have probably already read elsewhere. Effectively all the newspapers in the country are really just ONE newspaper since you only get the ONE version that is circulated by the AP.

            If journalism is about providing people access to information, then why is it not better served by the diversity of viewpoints provided by bloggers than by a single “authoritative” viewpoint, which originates from one reporter in a random local news office and then is repeated ad-nauseum by every other newspaper in the country?

  4. It is curious how the most vocal and ardent believers in Darwin’s theory refuse to apply it on the newspaper front. All on the web may not be truthful, but you surely have many alternatives to do your fact-checking. It beats the hell out of subscribing to hundreds of newspapers.

  5. Just wait until celebrity Twitter-sized thought bursts beamed directly into the brain begin to replace internet blogs.

  6. I imagine that this administration would love to subsidize all “real” news sources — AND be the one to decide what the “real” news sources are. We have already seen one half of this, and the other seems to be on the way.

  7. Greg, you have to be kidding. Internet “reviews” are almost completely garbage, and are hardly worth reading even if you stumble across them.

    I WANT to pay for the content I utilize. I would be perfectly happy if $15 per month was added to my internet fees, and distributed proportionately to the sites I surfed. I can’t do this manually as this would involve making many dozens of micropayments, not a few big ones.
    It is a simple, clear cut case of a market failing due to high transaction costs.

    1. I WANT to pay for the content I utilize.

      You are.

    2. Most sites have a button you can click on to contribute, give $5 or $10 a month to the ones you like.

      If they don’t, send an email to the site and ask how to contribute. If they’re interested in your money, they’ll get back to you.

      And STOP claiming market failure when there isn’t one!

  8. Dan Rather thinks we should add “editor in chief” to the growing list of Barack Obama’s duties.

    Gimme 5 minutes alone in a room with this guy, I swear to christ…

  9. Chad continues to confuse “market failure” with “Chad doesn’t get what he wants, when he wants it.”

    1. Chad does get what he wants, when he wants it. Yet he still calls this a market failure.

      It’s an irony which only the thickest of skulls couldn’t absorb.

    2. No, RC. You just refuse to understand that markets don’t always arrive at the optimal solution, for a variety of reasons. Why Econ 101 exceeds your ability to comprehend astounds me, as you seem a pretty bright guy.

      1. Why is the “optimal” solution necessarily the one where you pay for content depending on your browsing frequency?

        1. Actually, now that I think about it, such a plan is better than even what I was thinking yesterday. There are two major advantages.

          First, in an ideal world with no transaction costs and populated by hyper-rational individuals, we would all pay for whatever content we consume, at the price that is instantly and effortlessly negotiated between the consumer and the provider (which may be zero, or indeed, possibly negative). This plan does a fairly good job of approximating what would happen in the ideal world but essentially eliminates the transaction costs which kill the ideal plan. Is the distribution perfect? Of course not. But it is better than being wildly wrong, which is what we have now.

          The second thing that is nice about this plan is that people don’t like the act of having to pay for something, as numerous studies have confirmed. Paying a nickel 80 times is far more annoying than paying $5 once. People LIKE the subscription plan, even if they pay a bit more in the end, because it saves them the psychological bother of doing a cost-benefit analysis over and over.

  10. Why doesn’t he blame his god, the government?

    1. Because it’s mentally easier to blame it on his devil, the market.

  11. I WANT to pay for the content I utilize. I would be perfectly happy if $15 per month was added to my internet fees, and distributed proportionately to the sites I surfed. I can’t do this manually as this would involve making many dozens of micropayments, not a few big ones.
    It is a simple, clear cut case of a market failing due to high transaction costs.

    Profoundly stupid. Sounds like Britain’s TV tax. Before you trot out the minority of BBC shows that are actually worth viewing, look at what the rest of the world chooses to watch. Hint – It’s stuff produced in Southern California.

    1. Clearly, you have never lived overseas. The vast majority of TV is local.

      1. Not sure if you have. The biggest show in Spain when I was there was “How I Met Your Mother.” Of course they watch their own shows, but American TV is hugely popular.

  12. hired away editors and reporters from Texas Monthly, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the El Paso Times.

    Yeah, well, I uhh… never mind.

  13. The Internet does a so much better job for so many things. There is a S.D. steakhouse that is in all the Airline Mags as one of the “last great independents” but if you go to YELP, the vast majority of the customers say it is way overpriced, with crummy food.

    You can’t generalize. Some Internet journalism is bad and amateurish, but so is some printed stuff, esp. in the L.A Times. Some Internet is stuff is superior. Overall the Internet has printed news beat by a good margin, any way you want to measure.

    The comfortable, controlled exisitence of newspapers is gone. Too bad guys!!

    1. A lot of internet journalism is bad and amateurish. You ever lived in a small town with a print daily? Whoo boy.

      The joke about this is, is that the New York Times can continue to exist, be profitable, and be an original source of reliable news. But as an organization, it simply won’t look like it did in 1954. Newspaper people have to get their minds around that. If they don’t, they’re doomed.

      1. The daily newspapers, and many print magazines, are going to die. It’s inevitable.

        The NY Times might be able to evolve into a reputable online entity. I actually kind of doubt it though.

        I see journalism evolving into two (maybe 3) camps: A) Sites that strive for “raw” news reporting, making a point of eliminating not just bias, but any statements of opinion whatsoever, and
        B) Analysis bloggers – most will have their own spin, but some may attempt to maintain a non-partisan or non-ideological stance for the sake of their own reputation,
        and (sorta) C) The opinion blogosphere – where facts are cherry picked and commenters have a definite agenda. There might be some original reporting done here as well though.

  14. A big part of the free market is knowing and accepting that the end has come. Rather than hopelessly prop up a dead medium news companies should be embracing the new communications technologies and finding ways to make them profitable (accepting that maybe it won’t be for a while, of course).
    But they’ll hold on to the nostalgia for something that never really was and ask (well, demand) that everyone else prop them up.

    1. Not sure that’s really behavior specific to only the news industry as much as it applies generally to all human endeavors across the board. The problem isn’t the newspapers, it’s the possibility of government interference in the industry.

  15. Newspapers should admit their situation. There would be more dignity in it.

  16. Journalist: I wish we could fire our readers.

    Accountant: Don’t have to, they already quit.

  17. Where are the environmentalists calling for the closure of newspapers? I’m not an environmentalist but I find it more than odd that the greenies are not setting newspaper dispensers ablaze during the night, protesting outside of newspaper offices, slashing the tires of newspaper reporters, and so forth. We read a newspaper for how long? A couple minutes? And then what? We toss it away. Forests die everyday to keep this trickle of news coming into our lives. And still the environmentalists remain silent. I wonder why. Are they afraid of newspapers? Are newspapers of the “right” political viewpoint?

    Now I’m not calling for any such attacks or protests against newspapers. I’m just wondering and have been wondering for a long time why environmentalists haven’t gone after newspapers.

      1. So? All this waste for a couple minutes of reading. Sure you can recycle some of it but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is waste to begin with.

    1. They don’t mow down forest to create paper. Paper manufacturers get trees from tree farm.

      1. That’s not really true. Most of it comes from scrap too small to turn into lumber in the clear-cutting process. They just shove it all in the pulper.

        1. Only 40% of newsprint paper is made up of floor scraps in the US.

      2. Tree farm = forest. I didn’t say “virgin” forest. Just forest. Large number of trees being a forest. And it doesn’t make a difference in what I’m saying if it is virgin or replanted forest. Still a huge waste.

  18. The dailies are doomed and I can’t shed a tear. The notion that in the golden age of newspapers, quality reigned and we were all better informed as a consequence is, I think, totally bogus. Personally, the more education I got the more bone-headed blunders I noticed. In the scientific areas in which I am trained I can’t even give newspapers an F. The don’t fail, they seem never to have been to class. I think my experience generalizes to any other area you want to choose. Environmental reporting is an inummerate joke. Statistical analysis might as well be greek to the media. And political reporting, whether from the left or the right, is usually just an intellectual mugging. I don’t think we’re worse off without newspapers, I don’t think we were better off with them. Is the internet going to be better? I don’t know, but it can’t be worse.

    1. Agreed. In my field I am often encouraged to bring in newspaper or magazine articles for teaching purposes, but seldom do I find anything of value for my students, unless it be to teach them how not to write. Newspaper articles are useful for a few things, though: as tools to teach how not to write, how not to believe that what you see in print is somehow accurate simply because someone anointed with the title of “journalist” wrote it, and to demonstrate the value of copy-editing and how misplaced punctuation causes errors in meaning and skews comprehension.

      I would love to engage in discussion of the value of stat analysis and the gross misrepresentation of numbers in which reporters regularly wallow, but that is, sadly, lost on 10th graders.

      1. Well, and uh, newspapers are written at a 5th(ish) grade level…

  19. That same month, John Nichols and Robert McChesney, authors of Saving Journalism: The Soul of Democracy, published an essay in The Nation calling for “government intervention” in the form of $60 billion worth of “tax policies, credit policies and explicit subsidies” to save newspapers and educate schoolkids about what “differentiates good journalism from the other stuff.”

    Let me see if I have this straight. The next time the government changes Nichols and McChesney want the Republicans to control their budgets. Or maybe that thought is beyond their deadline.

    1. This is starting to sound like a good idea…

  20. Newspaper organizations are losing sight of the fact that the coming generation of news consumers don’t care one whit for newspapers. I am twice the age of my students and can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper for any reason other than to complete some homework assignment. My students read them even less; they get their news (which consists of sports, scandals involving starlets, and the dating habits of their favorite TV stars) from the aforementioned TMZ, or Entertainment Tonight, MTV and each other. They talk endlessly about what happened on some reality this-or-that show, and do not engage in discussion about news drawn from papers.

    This is not news regarding this age group, but it does illustrate that young people, the future news consumers, are not oriented to reading dailies or weeklies for information. They get it at their fingertips on their 3G iPhones, if they even care to read raw or hard news.

    Making them pay for the content, now or in the future when they might have a care to read less fluffy pieces, may only turn them away from engagement with journalism.

  21. I haven’t read my local rag in four years, yet I am better informed now than I ever was.

    Eff ’em.

  22. Most of the “news” reported in newspapers and local TV is just rehashing press releases or photo-ops. This is in no way a public service; the organizations doing the releases and photo-ops can jus put the stuff up on their own web sites and aggregators like Drudge or RCP or Instapundit can provide links.

    The analytical area has been almost foresworn by the media–they simply report what they feel like and say whatever their prejudice leads them to say. Any professional integrity is long gone.

    Investigative journalism has become very rare and where it exists at all it is usually a whistle-blower who went to a media person with a story about 80% pre-packaged. The media value-added is just in disseminating it, and that could be done a lot better and cheaper if you didn’t have all that overhead.

    So, I conclude we should just let ’em die and make space in the ecology for something better adapted to present conditions.

  23. “blue-ribbon commission”

    Those are the funniest %$#@ing words in all of politics; the very idea never ceases to crack me up.

  24. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate this article. I’m a Mass Communications major at a southeastern school focusing on internet work. Every damn day I have to hear about “newspapers are dying, newspapers are dying, we don’t see enough local news, it’s all controlled by CNN” and on and on. My professors are supposed to be preparing me for the future and they keep letting me down by telling us we should ‘save’ newspapers and move towards non-profit. The nonsense has got to end at some point, take newspapers off the respirator, shoot it up with morphine and let the death be a little more painless!

  25. Hey, TeethMarx: Do work like this

    http://www.ajc.com/news/nation…..74088.html

    This is high-quality journalism…exactly what I wish there was a good way for me to pay for.

    Oh, and it smacks down global warming deniers. No complaints their, either.

    1. Now I remember why I put that entire “news” site on my AdBlocker’s block list: it’s a leftard propaganda bogroll. (That’s not a typo: bogroll I typed, and bogroll I meant; only it’s not as useful for wiping oneself as actual newspapers used to be.) Yep, just what a known idiot like Chad would think of as “high-quality” reporting.

  26. The cows are giving kerosene,
    Kid can’t read at seventeen;
    The words he knows are all obscene, but
    It’s all right.

    I will get by.
    I will get by.
    I will get by.
    I will survive.

  27. thanks good,very good post,thanks,it is very useful for me

  28. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets..

  29. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

  30. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets

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