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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Death of Real News?

Final headline from the Rocky Mountain News

Remember not-gay former Senator Larry Craig? You know, the toe-tapping men's room sex enthusiast who was busted for cruising for toe-tapping men's room sex. That story was broken by a newspaper -- the capital hill paper The Hill. Less recently, Nixon's crimes -- which led to his eventual resignation -- were originally reported by the Washington Post. Meanwhile, the only stories I can think of that cable news has broken are ones along the "this network projects _____ has won the election" lines.

Network news does apply investigative journalism to stories, but the vast majority of these are "murders of the week" or sting operations on pedaphiles. Given that they're not running out of murders or pedaphiles, it's hard to argue that their reporting is having an impact. Then again, sensationalism isn't meant to solve a problem, it's meant to capitalize on it.

Hands down, the best journalism going is printed in newspapers. And the news on that front isn't good. Associated Press lists some of the newspapers "that have reduced publication days since last year" and finds drastic changes. Among them:

Arizona's Daily Dispatch has become the Douglas Dispatch, since it's no longer daily. Only three editions will be printed per week. Cutting back the number of editions printed weekly is becoming a common practice.

Wisconsin's The Capital Times quit printing a daily edition and now publishes two weekly tabloids delivered with its sister paper, Wisconsin State Journal. The paper exists mainly as an online entity.

Massachusetts' Christian Science Monitor only publishes weekly, with daily updates online.

Washington's Seattle Post-Intelligencer quit print altogether and only exists as an online enterprise.

The newspaper, which took its first blow from nightly TV news broadcasts, now competes with cable news and the internet. It's a competition the print newspaper is losing badly.

Last week, Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland proposed what was widely -- and largely incorrectly -- reported as a "newspaper bailout." It wasn't so much a bailout, which suggests a taxpayer handout, as it was a restructuring of the entire industry.

Agence France-Presse:

"It is in the interest of our nation and good governance that we ensure they survive," Cardin said in a statement on Tuesday.

The senator cited the recent closures of two newspapers, Denver's Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in introducing the bill and noted that many other publications were threatened.

Cardin said the act would grant newspapers tax-free status as non-profits, an arrangement similar to that enjoyed by public broadcasting outlets, which survive on tax-deductible contributions from listeners.

"Under this arrangement, newspapers would not be allowed to make political endorsements, but would be allowed to freely report on all issues, including political campaigns," he said.

"Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt and contributions to support coverage or operations could be tax deductible," he said.

Of course, the problem here is that newspapers are capitalist. From the perspective of the owners, going this route would be almost identical to going out of business. Shut down the presses -- no profit. Go with Cardin's plan -- no profit. Still, Cardin's plan could conceivably allow non-profits to buy failed papers. There'd be an incentive for workers -- who would otherwise be laid off -- to organize and do this. Still, whether or not this proposal goes anywhere is an open question. The fact that media outlets that would benefit from the death of the newspaper are reporting this as a "bailout" suggests pressure not to pass it.

Still, hope for investigative journalism is not lost. We don't have to look forward to a future of Dateline, 20/20, and To Catch a Predator. We already have non-profit investigative journalism. The best to date, in my opinion, comes from the relatively new

"It is true that the number and variety of publishing platforms is exploding in the Internet age," reads a statement on their site. "But very few of these entities are engaged in original reporting. In short, we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem."

That's the problem in a nutshell -- too much opinion, not enough fact. While many are getting their news from online sources, few see the connection between newspapers and real news. A recent poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found that only 33% would miss the local daily newspaper "a lot" if it stopped printing. Among those 18-39, that number is only 23%. You assume a lot of those 18-39 year-olds are getting news online, but don't realize how many hard news stories are generated by newspaper reporting. All of these blog posts -- mine included -- rely on original reporting from other sources. The same is true for the vast, vast majority of cable news hours -- information there comes mostly from interviews, not investigation.

What the actual future of real news is depends on a lot of factors and is pretty much impossible to predict. Until we know, buy a damned paper. It's the simplest solution.


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Anonymous said...


i refuse to spend a dollar on sunday to buy my local newspaper that ends up having mostly stories about murders in the big u.s. cities and very little local news or news that actually matters to me. and the fifty cents i spend for a week-day newspaper buys me mostly ads for stuff i can't afford.

Joe Markowitz said...

People who think we don't need newspapers because we can get all our news from the internet or tv should take a look at how much of the real news on the internet or tv actually comes from newspapers. How many stories on cable news start with, "The Washington Post reported today . . ." or "The New York Times reported . . ." etc. The Huffington Post news mostly consists of links to stories on real newspapers. The internet is great for commentary, but it is not producing a lot of real news. So we should be concerned whenever another newspaper bites the dust.

M said...

The lack of profit is just a convenient excuse to re-establish control and flow of what we seek and need to know.

Ooooh. Poetically profound!

I know, I know.

I really don't like any limiting of information. Nobody should. It's ignorant to cheer for the demise of print journalism.

It greatly weakens the prospect, and my personal hope, for a better informed society.

If knowledge is power, knowledge is in the midst of a Godfather I garbage can beating in the street for something the internet did.

In a grand sense, It seems like slaves being punished for reading.