Newspapers have been getting a bad press recently. The industry feels unappreciated, under siege and misunderstood, and some advocates have come out swinging in the past few days. Some of this takes the form of criticism of the critics; some, of expressions of the importance of the media and the need to protect papers.
There has been some angry examination of the source of recent critical articles about newspapers. “As many newspaper companies try to turn themselves around in a brutal economy, under huge debt loads and against a backdrop of increasingly funereal media coverage, it’s worth looking at the behavior and motives of some of the industry’s harshest critics,” writes Randy Siegel at Editor and Publisher. He points to recent stories posted at Time.com and by Jeff Jarvis. The former was actually authored by an investor website with that runs stock tips, and the second makes money consulting on web stuff and writing books on Google.
Siegel by the way is President of Parade Publications and a co-founder of the Newspaper Project. Parade is the colour magazine distributed with weekend newspapers in the US.
Other writers focus on what will be lost with the decline of newspapers – the supposedly irreplaceable characteristics that make them special. Mark Morford at the San Francisco Chronicle says that the editorial choices of the newspaper help guarantee and underpin the validity of what is inside. “The truth remains: You pick up the Times, the Post, the Chron — or read their online products — you immediately have an anchor, some credibility and authority, not to mention a sense of place and context. In whatever you read, you know there has been, at minimum, some real editorial oversight and integrity of product borne of trained, experienced editors and writers who, believe it or not, still value accuracy and truth above all else.”
Nick Kristof at the NYT deplores the drift towards solipsism and the lack of self-doubt that will come with any decline in newspapers, as people pick and choose only what they want to read. “The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.”
Ian Jack, in the Guardian, makes a point about truth and money. “Online journalism is cheap to produce because it depends so much on personal assertion and on untested information taken or supplied free by individuals, institutions and organisations… The trouble comes with what the New York Times knows as “the journalism of verification” – discovering information, examining it for its truth, narrating it a comprehensible way. That kind of journalism can be enormously expensive. People need to learn it and be paid… somebody will need to be paid to scrutinise proceedings if the official version of events isn’t to become the only version.” This theme is repeated elsewhere: “A vibrant democracy requires newspapers,” writes Albert R Hunt of Bloomberg at the International Herald Tribune. “Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States,” says a piece in The Nation.
There are challenges to these ideas. One of the better-known (and credible) views is that as newspapers decline, other news organisations – and other organisations, such as non-profits – will move into the space, and may do a better job of covering some of these areas. “My guess is that the venerable tradition of the muckraking journalist will be alive and well ten years from: partially supported by newspapers and magazines, partially by non-profit foundations and innovative programs like Newassignment.net, and partially by enterprising bloggers who make a name for themselves by breaking important stories,” said Steve Johnson, a media commentator and entrepreneur, in a widely commented-on speech.
The truth is likely to be that some aspects of newspapers are hard to recreate in other formats and it will take time. The crying need is for those with imagination to try: the crisis in newspapers is real and isn’t going away any time soon, and it is not fabricated by hostile forces. Even if some unfairly or unethically take delight, the closure of newspapers and the shift in media is a fact.