The Collapse of the Newspaper Industry and the Emergence of – What?

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It’s no secret that the newpaper industry is in trouble, and it has been for some time.  Consolidation within the industry and the loss of varied news outlets has been sharply remarked on for at least 20 years, but since about 2000 things have taken a radical turn for the worse.  The internet and the shift to digital media is almost singlehandedly putting the newspaper industry out of business. But where do we go after this?

Newspapers’ Accelerating Decline

A decade ago the venerable UPI (United Press International)  vanished from the landscape as a viable media service when it sold its remaining contracts to its long-time rival, the AP, in 1999.  The financially distressed Wall Street Journal was bought in 2007 by Rupert Murdoch, owner of one of the five corporations that control the majority of all American tv, radio and print media.  Once-solid papers are on crumbling foundations – the San Francisco Chronicle (among many others) is struggling to stay afloat, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looks to be the next in a line of major papers to flat go out of business. Note that we are no longer in an era when major cities support 2, 3, or more papers, as was the case as recently as the 1980s.  When San Francisco or Seattle lose their major papers, the primary significant source of local print news coverage will be gone forever.

Even papers that expected less risk and more corporate support as part of a major news corporation – such as those of the McClatchy news group, which owns titles like the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee – are seeing their work forces slashed year after year, 5% here, 8% there, just to keep the doors open.  One wonders what newspapers will report on when all the reporters are fired.

It’s been a cumulative process throughout the 20th century, but has reached critical mass since the year 2000. In 1930 there were 288 competitive major newspaper markets in the U.S. By 2007 there were fewer than 30.  Throughout the 20th century, most of this reduction in outlets came from the much-lamented process of consolidation and agglomeration within the industry: diverse voices were squelched, the news became  homogenized; increasingly, issues of true controversy or complexity were  overlooked or avoided. Such stories are resource intensive to investigate and report, and doing so is often discouraged or overtly forbidden by the corporate interests that own agglomerated media.[1]

Since the turn of the millenium, this process has accelerated because of the unlooked-for impact of the internet. The shift to digital media has multiplied information sources (the question of their quality is a separate topic), diluted demand for print media, changed the competitive landscape and leeched away readers and advertisers. Today papers are going under.

Failures in Journalism

Even where reporters are still in business, one also wonders about the morphing of reportage into supportage over the last 15 or so years.  In certain major regards, the industry has shifted away from the watchdog role it once had (and which journalism schools still tout, although it is an increasingly remote ideal), and become a cheering squad with relatively minor (if any) critical pokes at the subjects of reportage.   The lack of media critique or investigation into the false claims and excesses of the Bush administration is already legend. It is on a par with the wilful oblivion towards financial affairs criticized by Columbian Journalism Review editor and former WSJ reporter Dean Starkman in his article How Could 9,000 Business Reporters Blow It?

In the report “What is Financial Journalism For?”, the UK’s POLISMedia frames the issue this way: “Ultimately, do journalists have a broader professional duty to ensure that corporate malpractice comes to light, or is their role merely to provide whatever their readers want?”

In today’s commercial industry structure, the overt and covert bias is clearly towards the latter, not the former.

Evolving News Systems

As newspapers vanish around us, what is to replace them? Not broadcast media or vloggers;  as easily consumed as sound-bite reportage is, it is just that: short bits of information tailored for the attention span and verbal delivery requirements of an AV audience.  With the possible exception of lengthy feature reportage, video – and for that matter radio – media does not get into the depth required for detailed, factual investigation and reportage. There is a level of information complexity that requires words, paragraphs, pages to delve into and explicate. This has never leant itself to audio or video formats. It is peculiarly the province of the written word. So when I ask what will replace the newspapers, I am asking, what written format will surface to provide us with in-depth investigatory information?

Observers of the Web 2.0 phenomenon are quick to point to the blogosphere as the protoypical New Media for print reportage.  Bloggers in their multiplicity can apply much more effort and collective inquiry into subjects of interest. The blogophere is already recognized as a place where many hands make light work of fact checking, and sharp observers are quick to catch and question disparities in mainstream reporting. The blogosphere is also the source of much breaking news: again, the benefit of a diverse and diffuse membership, with many ears to many different patches of ground.

But is this the heir to the newspaper industry? This populist model of inquiry and discussion?  I rather like populist models of certain things, myself, but before washing my hands of print media and turning to the blogosphere for some of my fundamental information needs, I have to pause and reconnoiter.  I need to question first causes. Namely, what is the real purpose that journalism serves?

Unique Function of Journalism in a Democracy

Obviously, journalism can inform, educate, entertain, and advocate causes. But in a democracy it also has a special role – a unique one in media. As Jeffrey Dvorkin, former Executive Director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, has said, “”Journalism has an obligation to inform people as citizens and to make sure that they have enough knowledge about the issues that concern them as citizens of their communities, of their country and the world, so they can make informed choices.”

The role of journalism in a free society is intimately bound up with our freedoms and decision-making capabilities as citizens. It is part of the broader picture of information access and freedom that is central to democracy.  If all we produce or consume in this realm is reporting tailored to profit-driven parameters, we will be ignorant and ill-informed, a nation of sheep increasingly incapable of managing our own affairs.  It is vital that we nurture a sphere of journalism that enables us to make truly informed choices.

Working from that premise then, it is the practice of quality journalism itself – not the physical existence of newspapers – that is critical.  Is the blogosphere the right place to cultivate it?  Perhaps so, perhaps no. Masses of people writing – some poorly, some well, some with critical thoughts and inquiry, others spinning propaganda – does not automatically equate to quality journalism or even minimally competent reportage.  On the other hand, these things can be found in the blogosphere, although picking the signal out of the noise can be a challenge.  What the blogosphere will evolve into remains to be seen. I’m not convinced at this nascent stage of its existence that blogging is the real or best successor to newspaper reportage, or more strategically, that it can fill the gap in quality journalism, which requires writing that meets specific standards.

Whither Next?

What can fill this gap where newspapers have failed, and are now vanishing from the landscape? I don’t think the answer to that has evolved yet, but given the rate of change in this Information Age, I expect some new or more sophisticated form of information exchange is emerging that will be the functional successor to newspapers. I don’t expect it will be “newspaper-like” – why transfer the constraints and attributes of print into a digital analog? It is simply not necessary to do so.  What will carry on is the core element of journalism, however it is packaged:   informing citizens, giving them the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. When we think of it in that manner, many things are possible. To continue to think in terms of the presentation mode of old (newpapers) is unnecessarily limiting.

So far the journalism propagating on the web – other than via the blogosphere – has done exactly that: limited itself by following old forms.   It has been predicted that print papers will eventually all go digital (which is to say, become digital analogs of newspapers or magazines), existing with smaller staffs and more geographically diverse reporters/contributors[2].  We already see this with papers like the Christian Science Monitor (the first major paper to go to a wholly electronic edition)  or the paper/feature format style of  Alternet.org (solely a net incarnation) and myriad others. But that seems like insufficient evolution to me, merely translating an old school paradigm into a digital format.

Surely this is a box we can think outside of. Let’s stop thinking about “news online” with its subtext of old-paradigm format/delivery/business structure implications.  Let’s make sound journalism and excellent content the primary focal point instead.  Appropriate delivery formats will evolve – content will drive form, after all  (“form follows function”).  Meanwhile, tthere is and will be a talent pool sufficiently skilled to deliver in this area in terms of the information content requirements. (Where do reporters go, anyway, when they are laid off or their newspapers close their doors?) When will consortia of independent, trained journalists come together via the web, to produce reportage no longer constrained by corporate ownership and shareholder profit considerations?  Perhaps a publisher entity is necessary to coordinate the work of many – or perhaps not. Maybe with web 2 and 3 modalities, we can find ways for collaborative and shared information exchange while avoiding the negative aspects of traditional newspaper infrastructure and ownership.

I see where we’ve been and where we’ve come from.  The path ahead disappears quickly into the fog of evolving technology, emerging human interaction styles, and the potential of  networked, decentralized information.  While the screams and death throes of a perishing industry ring loudly in our ears right now, what I am really listening for is the full-throated squall of an infant newly born.   Who, what, and where will it be?

Ah. Journalism questions, those.  Let me know if you know the answers.

[UPDATE: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s last day of business was March 17. They are moving completely to the web with reduced staff in a commentary-centric ‘Huffington Post’ style format, making them the largest paper to date to go digital. But content-wise? My above lament still applies.]

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1. Examples of this problem are rife in media analysis. One example is this excerpt from Dean Starkman’s article referenced above:

in may 1990, the Wall Street Journal published “The Reckoning,” a devastating, 7,000-word account by Susan Faludi, then a staff writer, of the human toll wrought by the leveraged buyout of the Safeway grocery chain. It is safe to say that that piece, which tied the Safeway lbo to workers’ suicides, heart attacks, and more, would never be proposed, let alone published, today….It…took on a practice that at the time was at the very heart of Wall Street’s business model, not to mention one of the preeminent firms of the era, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. It then expanded the story’s scope to take into account the social costs of high finance. Similarly, the Journal‘s Alix Freedman took on the tobacco industry at the height of its power in 1996, when she won a Pulitzer for stories exposing how ammonia additives heighten nicotine’s potency.

“By contrast, in the past few years, business-news outlets, increasingly burdened financially, less confident editorially, competing ever more fiercely among themselves, torn by the tradeoff between access and scrutiny, have slowly given away their sense of perspective. ”

2. Needless to say, this will not be a democratic means of information distribution unless and until every household in this country has internet access, including the poorest of the poor. Not an inconsequential consideration if journalism is to serve the purposes of democracy and citizenship.

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Comments

Important to add that we all have to drop the concept of a journalist as a profession that is closed to others by virtue of the decision of others to earn money in another “field”. It may be hard to do journalism while earning a living elsewhere, but people are willing to do this and that is the wave of the future. At any time a student or a CEO can find themselves with knowledge of facts that can be reported on – often with a greater degree of accuracy and fairness than if they had to seek out a print reporter and get that “professional” to write an article. Twitter is great for this. This revolution is ending the frustration people had in trying to get gatekeepers to write news that mentioned all the facts in a reasonable context.

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