Posted by: Dominic Umile | 03/30/2009

Reading: News on Newspapers (UPDATED)

NewspapersWhile I won’t pretend that I have the background to offer any empirical analysis of the country’s ailing newspapers, I believe very strongly that this is a grave matter, and I wanted to point interested parties to a couple of poignant discussions regarding the industry’s rapid, devastating decline.

When I tried to visit the International Herald Tribune’s site yesterday (and later the NYT homepage), I was re-directed to the new Global New York Times site, which is evidently an effort by the paper to consolidate the content and keep traffic moving into one place for ad purposes, etc. This was news to me, but it’s part of the bigger picture that I cannot stop myself from closely monitoring on a daily basis — the one that is shrinking the Times’ staff, closed the Seattle PI and Rocky Mountain News, and bankrupted the parent company of the newspaper loaded with the political commentary, general news, and sports columns that my brother would send me to when I’d missed them so often, even as I’d spent most of my life living 35 minutes from where they were being printed.

Perhaps you’ve read the lengthy Paul Starr piece in the New Republic that characterizes newspapers’ dire condition as a threat to democracy (less eyes on Washington, D.C. equals less transparency, allowing for corruption to flourish freely, with appointed officials operating un-checked). Starr writes:

The concern about statehouse coverage–indeed, about newspaper retrenchment in general–is not just the declining number of reporters, but deterioration in the quality of journalism. As the editorial ranks are thinned, internal checks on accuracy are being sacrificed. As reporters with years of experience are laid off, newspapers are losing the local knowledge and relationships with trusted sources that those reporters had built up, which enabled them to break important stories.

If you’ve got the time, Starr’s piece is critical reading, but he might have benefited from spending more time on the good sources of original reporting in cyberspace. The rebuttal, presented by Yochai Benkler, does. He throws light on the important online investigative journalism that’s been conducted by reporters for Talking Points Memo (let’s not forget their groundbreaking 2006-era stories on the politicization of the Justice Department) and the fairly new Washington Independent, which, like ProPublica, is a newsroom funded by a non-profit organization that’s producing original reporting and commentary, not just aggregating, like I’m doing right now (See Eric Alterman’s 2008 New Yorker piece for solid historical context and well-researched insight on the bad news).

I’m reading last week’s excellent cover story from the Nation, “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,” and I’m going to recommend that one as well. John Nichols and Robert McChesney concur with Paul Starr with respect to the newspaper’s role in preserving democracy, and their call-to-action identifies the state of journalism as one in shambles that’s in desperate need of repair (NYU professor Clay Shirky wrote recently of the same affliction). Amid a number of proposals that you’ll probably agree are imperative for the government to consider, to say the least, Nichols and McChesney conclude:

But it is not just newspapers that are in crisis; it is the institution of journalism itself. By any measure, journalism is missing from most commercial radio. TV news operations have become celebrity- and weather-obsessed “profit centers” rather than the journalistic icons of the Murrow and Cronkite eras. Cable channels “fill the gap” with numberless pundits and “business reporters,” who got everything about the last decade wrong but now complain that the government doesn’t know how to set things right.

Finally, at the American Prospect’s web site, Paul Waldman very eloquently establishes a case for newspapers that’s, well, pretty black and white. He pins unfolding a newspaper at the breakfast table against getting the information “you asked for” online, and uses an effective, simple analogy in the process:

The real value of the open-stack library, on the other hand, is not the book you were looking for, but the book you happened across on your way to what you were looking for. It’s what you see and realize you’re interested in, or what you might never have thought you’d be interested in.

It’s a dilemma that, as Clay Shirky opined, will take a lot of searching and testing before we come to a model that works. I’d feel a better about it, however, if I were reading more consensus about journalism’s problems than I am obituaries for well-loved, popular newspapers, but there will be more bad news before there is good. Let’s just hope the good is somewhere on the horizon.

UPDATE: Will Bunch has an excellent post about a program that he envisions would do a great deal more than just improve the current condition of news organizations; it would better the relationship between the “papers” and their readers by growing it considerably while fostering an upsurge in online readership. Bunch has written recently about the “unique” newspaper reader in Philadelphia, and takes under consideration the fact that not every newspaper reader, in any town, sits in front of a laptop everyday or even owns a computer — an important item that gets buried when most folks discuss the “future of news.” I strongly advise taking a look at this one, and passing the link around. You and your friends can discuss it between innings on SUNDAY NIGHT.


  1. “Pretty black and white….”

    It is terribly true, everything is being homogenized, prepackaged for mass consumption.

    Although, it needs to be said that so many of the mainstream newspapers aren’t near what they used to be. Editors are consigned to capturing ad revenue, not crooked politicians and the like. It’s a sad state of affairs. Soon enough, my friend we will all be getting ready for the 2 minute hate.

  2. Thanks for reading, Bald Ben. Agreed; thankfully, there are more grass-roots efforts underway, and at least there is some understanding that investigative reporting shouldn’t go the way of the Chia Pet, you know? Amid the Sun-Times news, etc., this week, maybe you’ve seen that NYU’s Jay Rosen will be guiding an investigative journalism department at Huffington Post. Some good news, at least. Thanks for your contribution, and again for taking a look around!

  3. I’m less pessimistic about it. The transition that were witnessing brings on a world where information finds you, instead of you finding it. And I know it’s naive on my part, but I like to think that some clever, creative people could find a new way take advantage of that fact — could force more of us to become a part of the conversation that good journalism sparks. I am neither clever or creative enough to actually offer any of those ideas. But if we learn to critically filter the information and become more aware of its sources, maybe readers can play a more important role in the “conversation.” [Bald Ben: so bald.]

  4. Thanks for reading, Songsmith. And thanks for your contribution. I like Will Bunch’s recent perspective on this, and I agree with you on the need to address the common flaws in today’s reporting. I admit, though, I’ve been feeling down on the developments in general with respect to the big failing papers — there seems to have been an onslaught of it lately. I’ll try to update this space as much as I can if I come across any more worthwhile analysis.

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