Monday, March 30, 2009

Newspapers & Blogs

As I've mentioned in previous posts, the days of the Sunday Express are over and they ain't coming back. The question now is how far the decline of newspapers will go, not whether there is a decline underway. The politically motivated attempt by the Harper junta to undermine the CBC will only further damage the ability of the local press to cover the Williams regime.

As with so much else, events in NL are taking place in a much larger international context. The decline of newspapers in St. John's from two dailies and one weekly to one daily newspaper mirrors trends across North American. Like the decline in the newsprint industry more generally, Newfoundland's case is not exceptional.

So where does this leave things? According to Russell Wangersky, newspapers remain indispensable because they provide the raw material on which everyone else relies for public discourse; most blogs and internet news outlets are little more than parasites feeding off the news meat created by print journalism. Why is this the case?

"That's because they don't make anything: they're not covering stories or providing opinion, they're simply redistributing news that someone else had to pay people to collect. They repackage, handing around someone else's work and collecting ad revenues for their efforts.

Bloggers do it, too - many provide valuable insight and points of view, and some provide new material that they've dug up independent of the traditional media. But most bloggers don't have the time to actually attend the scores of events they produce blogposts on - in their own way, a large portion of their output is refining and repackaging the shoeleather being invested by others

Wangersky asks, "If they don't even have the basic tools, how exactly will the media of the future build the news?"

But the answer is not as straightforward as it may seem. Part of the problem lies in the fact that newspapers themselves rely fairly heavily on wire services (CP, AP, Reuters, et al.) to fill their pages, while budget cuts have mitigated their ability to undertake costly investigative reporting. In addition, most columns, editorials, op-eds, letters to the editor, and other types of opinion pieces do not draw on original local reporting based on investigative journalism.

Another complication is the fact that the relationship between newspapers and the internet is not one-way; newspapers also use internet reporting and blogs can influence press coverage, though they are rarely given credit. While most blogs, including this one, provide links whenever they discuss a source or quote anyone, the online edition of the Telegram (with the notable exception of Geoff Meeker's blog) does not provide links to online sources, even those cited specifically in a story or editorial.

In addition, there is the question of the relationship between democracy and an independent press. I think most people, myself certainly included, assume that a vibrant newspaper press is essential for building and sustaining a vibrant liberal democracy. An independent press is, in other words, a necessary condition for democracy.

It wasn't always this way. The modern newspaper press grew out of the coarse world of partisan politics. Far from being paragons of objectivity, they were up to their eyeballs in brass-knuckle politics. Like many bloggers today, newspapers used anonymous sources and pseudonyms were common. Jill Lepore's lively article in the New Yorker (still the best magazine in the world, by the way) is well worth reading.

Also worth reading is James Surowiecki's short piece on the economics of newspapers, which places their recent troubles in their larger context. Surowiecki concludes, "For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is."

Sounds logical to me. If you don't pay for it, you don't get it. And if you don't get independent newspapers, you don't get a healthy democracy.

But the debate does not end there. Far from it. Slate, which has been going through its own decline of late, recently ran a provocative article by Jack Shafer, "Democracy's Cheat Sheet? It's time to kill the idea that newspapers are essential for democracy."

Here's Shafer's conclusion:
"On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might. How else to explain the ongoing political corruption in Illinois, which its press has covered admirably? Maybe an academic at Champaign-Urbana can prove that newspaper investigations of political corruption "damage" democracy by increasing the public's cynicism. Or that stellar newspaper coverage that increases participation in the political process stymies democracy by recruiting too many knuckleheads. Or that bad (but well-meaning) journalism—of which there is too much—cripples the democratic impulse.

The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them

While I don't agree with the cheat sheet analogy, I think he's right about not treating newspapers as sacred cows. We also need to re-think the assumption that there is a one-way relationship between the press and the internet.

Democracy is about dialogue. If nothing else, the internet has provided a forum for dialogue. It's not always neat, polite, or ordered; it often serves as a forum for worst instincts and lowest common denominators; and it's not exactly a bastion of elegent writing and sophisticated expression. But it's vibrant, full of different voices, and engaged.

It's no accident that newspapers' online comment sections are often so active and full of divergent opinions. The online forum gives citizens an opportunity to speak back to the press beyond the confines of the edited letter to the editor. This means that newspapers are less a one-way conversation, which can only be a good thing for democracy.

It's also important not to overstate the commercialization of the internet. For every corporation that's looking for another way to squeeze a dollar out of the internet, there is an amateur contributing for free. The vast majority of bloggers are doing it without any financial compensation. They earn nothing, and in the case of anonymous blogs, the bloggers themselves don't even get personal credit.

To be sure, we usually get what we pay for, but that's only part of the story in the evolution of media and democracy. The other part of the story is that we can also get what we do ourselves.

Professional journalism is, without question, essential for a vibrant democracy, but so too is civic engagement. If this engagement takes place online rather than in bowling alleys, then perhaps it offers a solution to the problems raised by Robert Putnam.

And if it erodes the professionals' monopoly over political commentary, then perhaps it's not all bad after all.

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