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Whither newspapers?
March 14, 2009 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Clay Shirky writes about what is killing newspapers and what will replace them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle (101 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I used to follow themediaisdying on twitter, but it got too degressing. It's bedtime, but I am guessing I'll have the same reaction to this.

The worst thing that's happened to newspapers lately is the downturn in the economy. Less ad dollars, less circulation, etc. Everybody is hurting, but it's killed some newspapers that might have stuck around long enough to morph into something new.

Everyone keeps talking about "a new model," but honestly, for publicly traded papers, I don;t see them finding one.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2009


Whats a newspaper?
posted by Avenger at 8:37 PM on March 14, 2009


Farewell to the tyranny of reporters. In the pre-Internet past, writers and editors decided how readers would learn about a story, writes Stephen Strauss. Now, with readers able to dissect stories and gain access to raw research material, journalists are no longer information dictators.

"One of the most magisterial things the Internet is doing is undermining the previous writer/editor dictatorship. Suddenly, what used to be effectively a one-sided conversation in which the writer did all the talking has been turned into an agora in which a piece is dissected and often reconstructed by the readers. Hyperlinks embedded in an article means a reader can decide to branch off from the main piece and read something someone else has written related to the subject. Suddenly a piece doesn’t have a defined beginning, middle and end; it has a beginning and then readers decide where it and they will go." -- Stephen Strauss
posted by netbros at 8:52 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Newspapers remind me of matches. If lighters had been invented first, and matches came along later, everyone would be all, "have you seen the new tremendous advance in fire? It's cheap and disposable, doesn't require refills, no moving parts, we can just give them away, easy to carry."
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:55 PM on March 14, 2009 [8 favorites]


Most of this post rehashes what newspaper followers have been saying for a while. His new contribution is to encourage people to see this as a time of experimentation in which many formats will be tested.

That's well and good, but I'm nervous. I do love newspapers, but I can see the arguments that the time may have come for them to change shape. However, we can't do without journalism. Newspapers did a lot of scut work. TV news is cute entertainment, but it is not keeping me apprised of things happening in city council or what the house on my street is being appraised for or what the state is doing about replacing the bridge I walk over daily. Nor are blogs or other sorts of websites. Newspapers provided a central public forum with a defined geographic area of responsibility and a defined data set that they would parse and present reliably. It bothers me that we could see a lot of sunshine disappear - and a lot of people, people of the 'what's a newspaper' variety, don't realize what a vital function newspapers have played over the last 100 years to keep corruption in check and give people information.

We may need to worry a lot more about supporting journalism than about supporting papers. There is a cachet to the deadtree paper and I suspect that premium versions will be around for some time. I also heard a good NPR show tonight where a guy from the Pew Center for People and the Press talked about this issue, and then they referenced El Diario, the global/local Spanish-language paper whose deadtree circulation is growing. Why? It's so simple - many of their readers do not have desk jobs. THey don't have the time at their desks to sit and read online papers or blogs in between tasks or while on the phone, as many in the white-collar world do; as the interviewee said, they buy the paper, bring it in to the office, it gets traded around all day, then it goes home for the family to read. This leads me to wonder how well newspapers have been serving the non-white-collar world, and also whether we're likely to see a news spectrum where, even more than today, the very rich and the very poor read the paper, and the rest of us clickety click and hope to find some reliable information on some regularly expected areas of coverage.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on March 14, 2009 [10 favorites]


Farewell to the tyranny of reporters.

It's a nice idea, but the thing is, people don't have the time. Only those who care very much about an issue will follow every link and unearth every stone and reconstruct and rewrite a story. There's really no value to pay a reporter for if the expectation is that readers will redo all the work. Of course we will use hyperlinks and databases more because they are easier to access, but they really don't fundamentally change anything about reporting.

This time/data problem is, somewhat ironically, the same problem that gave rise to the creation of reporters and newspapers in the first place -- too much information, not enough time, an impossibility of any one person knowing enough about every issue to make an informed decision based on raw data. The gathering-and-filtering function of reporters and newspapers has always been at least as important as the verification-and-watchdogging function.
posted by Miko at 9:03 PM on March 14, 2009 [6 favorites]


Whats a newspaper?

Usually there's a still-image cartoon of Garfield in it. Or Peanuts, depending on the era. Upon inspecting a variety of them from archival online sources this seems to be the most commonly shared delivered content, sort of an early "push-broadcast" technology - and I know this sounds totally ridiculous but I'm being totally serious - with printed paper and delivery trucks and small children on bikes throwing these printed packets - well, bundles, really - at doorstops from moving bicycles at before-sunrise hours while riding on streets and sidewalks. Other people in urban environments would also purchase their papers from small children on foot alone in dangerous urban mixed traffic environments. In the latter years of this technology one of the primary delivery methods devolved to stimulant addicts piloting massively derelict and often heavily polluting internal combustion vehicles careening through neighborhoods several hours before dawn while throwing bundles of papers out of the window of their moving vehicles.

Further research reveals that these data bundles would often be used to wrap fish or line the cages of domesticated pet birds. Considering the incredible banality of much of the content and the delivery methods of the time I personally find this amusingly unsurprising.
posted by loquacious at 9:04 PM on March 14, 2009 [16 favorites]


society doesn't need journalism, it needs cake. nice sweet fluffy cake.
posted by geos at 9:05 PM on March 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


One of Shirky's points is that even if some institution is performing a useful, even an essential, function that doesn't guarantee that the way that institution operates is financially viable.

Technological change has killed many companies who operated successfully for decades. See e.g. Polaroid corporation whose instant camera business was destroyed by the development of digital photography.

When it comes to newspapers, no man is more responsible for their demise than Craig Newmark. Craigslist has cut the legs out of newspapers by stealing a rising share of their main source of revenue: classified advertising.

Historically, there have been things, common goods, which could not reasonably be created by the free market, and so we have made the collective decision to have government do them. Thus roads, the post office, the military, and FDA inspectors.

But what of the function of monitoring government for abuse? Until now that was done by private enterprise, mostly newspapers, but they are are dying out. What, then?

I think that Shirky's answer is "nobody knows, but even if there's a vacuum that results it won't prevent the revolution from happening."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:10 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


We may need to worry a lot more about supporting journalism than about supporting papers.

Yes. Frankly, this is what terrifies me about the death of the newspaper: "You and me, donating our time," as the article puts it, are (a) biased, (b) only going to focus on the things that interest us personally, (c) not getting paid for our work, meaning that we can't make a living at it, meaning that we aren't going to do it all the time, and (d) only going to keep at it as long as we have the free time and the inclination. Put another way, information may want to be free, but my rent wants to cost four figures a month. As long as that holds true, a journalist who can't live off his/her work will only ever be a hobbyist, and a hobbyist's ability -- and desire -- to act as a serious reporter is extremely limited. Our need for professional journalism is fucking enormous, and its loss is a catastrophe in motion.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2009 [13 favorites]


Interesting thought just now: Who shall monitor the government for abuse of power, and publicize it, if not the print media? How about the political party that's out of power?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:15 PM on March 14, 2009


This article is excellent
posted by dydecker at 9:17 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Huh. This guy is kind of missing the point. The music industry is dying because people are pirating their stuff, but the newspapers aren't dying because of piracy, their dying because of competition for advertising. The cost of classifieds is now zero, and advertisers don't care where their ads go as long as they're well targeted.

Yeah, distribution costs are low, but what sank the newspapers was the fact that anyone could write the news, not that they were the only ones who could do it an everyone else could only pirate their work, not compete with them.
posted by delmoi at 9:19 PM on March 14, 2009


Interesting thought just now: Who shall monitor the government for abuse of power, and publicize it, if not the print media? How about the political party that's out of power?

Well the obvious answer would be non print media right?
posted by delmoi at 9:21 PM on March 14, 2009


Our need for professional journalism may well be fucking enormous, but our societal mechanisms for making it happen broke decades ago and nobody cared. They were too busy patting themselves on the back for inventing infotainment.

This is just ... well, the journalism industry jumped out of an airplane long, long ago without bothering with a parachute. It's just that they're only now hitting the ground, since people noticed that infotainment only gives you partial information and isn't all that entertaining once things start to hit the fan in real life. As a brilliant man said this week, "This isn't a fucking game."

Journalism is starting to happen in the absence of the print media. Talking Points Memo is an excellent example; they're doing actual investigative journalism, with exclusively online publication.

If society wants journalism, it will happen. It just won't be done by newspapers -- but as I say, newspapers have been withdrawing from journalism anyway. It's a little late for them to be crying now; they could have tried to stay in business by, you know, working for it instead of taking a rent-seeking approach.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:26 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of surprised by people who think that without newspapers we'll get no information. What newspapers do you read? Do you read any blogs? What do you think of sites like Talking Points Memo? The idea that it's not possible to make money online doing news is absurd. The problem is making enough money to cover the costs of doing a newspaper.
posted by delmoi at 9:27 PM on March 14, 2009


I think that Shirky's answer is "nobody knows, but even if there's a vacuum that results it won't prevent the revolution from happening."

But it's not an answer, just an observation. We're still facing either a temporary or a permanent loss of some essential functions of the fourth estate.

The funding-source collapse is a done deal, (is that the revolution, the funding collapse?) but a 'vacuum' presents many serious threats to the public good while we twirl around figuring out where our facts are going to come from and who can be believer.

It's true, there's no one to pay for it; that's not Shirky's observation alone, he's just recently gotten interested in writing about a topic that media watchers have been discussing for years on and offline. Some of this crisis was also exacerbated by the previous decades of increasingly aggregated corporate ownership - that's a factor you don't hear about often enough, though we hear plenty about lost ad revenue.

You've identified the central dilemma, chocolate pickle: if part of the function of journalism is to independently report on government, then government as a source of funding is an inherent conflict of interest. Yet many people point to the BBC, which operates fairly well at arms' length from government with a significant amount of public funding. People are also interested in the subscriber model, which we see does work with NPR and its affiliates - which have experienced great growth over the last two decades, set up as independent nonprofits. There will indeed be lots of experimentation over the next several years. In the meantime, I hope I can figure out who to vote for and whether Poland Springs has bought off enough councilpeople to get control of my city's water supply yet. You know, from a source other than Poland Springs or the corrupt councilors. Things like that, issues big and small.

The other looming issue is this one: ad revenue even on the internet is tanking. IN the first place, it was always far, far cheaper than print advertising. And now it seems that it's much less effective, as well. Reporting is very expensive; even if newspapers cease paying printing costs and go completely online, there is not enough revenue to pay for the work that needs to be done. The internet successfully drew content and readership away from print, but it can't sustain them, either, and that's not likely to change for the better any time soon. Should newspapers become data aggregators, like most social, commerce, and search sites already are? The money isn't coming from ads anymore. Not for anyone.

Though some great reporting is going on online, what we seem to be in danger of losing is the generalist press, the citizens' press, the publication that reports the boring stuff, goes to the meetings, logs the hours, files the updates, checks the facts, and in the process creates the public record. It's not very sexy stuff but I'm terrified of what will happen when there is no one but council members sitting in council meetings, and no one but legislators sitting in Congress.
posted by Miko at 9:27 PM on March 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


I strongly recommend listening to Part 2 of the podcast debate between Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman. Although sports centric, Simmons hits the nail on the head, IMO.

In a nutshell, comfortable profit margins made papers uniquely incapable of adapting to change. When union rules raise the salary floor and prevent you from replacing underperforming individuals, those individuals start to behave like tenured professors instead of vibrant employees. Sometimes, it's OK to rely on professional integrity of these individuals. Other times, you end up with sports beat reporters that phone it in, despite working full time only about five months out of the year.

And other times, you end up with a situation like the Boston Globe -- they haven't changed their top-line columnists in more than 25 years, and young talent, such as Simmons, who dreamed of writing for the Globe, but saw he had no chance of advancement, so he turned to the Internet, and now he's arguably one of the most influential writers in the biz.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:27 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stony Brook University unveiled a proposal last week to hire 50 laid-off journalists to undergo training this summer and join dozens of U.S. university campuses in the fall to teach "news literacy" to non-journalism majors.

The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook says they are committed to teaching students how to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources.
posted by netbros at 9:32 PM on March 14, 2009


If society wants journalism, it will happen. It just won't be done by newspapers -- but as I say, newspapers have been withdrawing from journalism anyway. It's a little late for them to be crying now; they could have tried to stay in business by, you know, working for it instead of taking a rent-seeking approach.

You're telling the truth, but I don't think you're finding the problem. Print media in general is dying on its feet; not just newspapers. I'm not sure better reporting would have kept newspapers out of this mess. It might have helped, but it wouldn't have prevented what's going on right now from taking place eventually. My fear is that very little -- sure, not none, but not much, either -- investigative journalism is likely to take place outside of the aegis of large media companies, because investigative journalists and the journalism they produce cost money, and money is one thing that internet content is sort of shitty at generating, especially on a consistent basis equivalent to a nine-to-five, well, job.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:35 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


what sank the newspapers was the fact that anyone could write the news

No, that's has nothing to do with what sank newspapers, and it's not even true.

If society wants journalism, it will happen.

Maybe not. In some other economic discussion here we were talking about things that are an undisputed good, which everybody wants, and yet which everybody is unwilling to pay for. Journalism may not be alone in this category. The danger is that people probably do not consciously realize how much they want it - they'd have to know what a total absence of it was like, and we've never known that.

I'm kind of surprised by people who think that without newspapers we'll get no information. What newspapers do you read? Do you read any blogs? What do you think of sites like Talking Points Memo?

People often respond to this concern by naming a couple of blogs or magazines doing great investigative reporting. There's no doubt that they exist. But it is not comprehensive. It's niche, interest-based, and strongly biased in one way or another. I'm much more worried about the loss of the comprehensive coverage that the newspaper industry provided, municipal, state and national, on news, arts, business, sports, legal action, real estate, environment, and government. Talking Points Memo is not going to be helping me understand the potential impact of the wind farm they're building in the next town, or whether my town is improperly engaging in eminent domain land-grabs, or who I should vote for if I don't want casino gambling.

If you had to drop .50 in the internet coin-slot every day to make it run, would you?
posted by Miko at 9:35 PM on March 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


Damn Mayans are gonna end up being right, aren't they.
posted by cashman at 9:39 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable”

Thomas Jefferson

True, the Internet could conceivably fulfill the requirements of TJ's concept, although the fact that many people do not have computers and many do not use the Internet to find news and opinion is indisputable and troubling.

It is also strange that Shirky (must be a young guy) has no comment about how much a part of popular culture it has been that the majority of Americans have been accustomed to sitting down over breakfast and coffee along with a newspaper to orient themselves to developments in the world and their community in the last 24 hours.
posted by kozad at 9:39 PM on March 14, 2009


Stony Brook University unveiled a proposal last week to hire 50 laid-off journalists to undergo training this summer and join dozens of U.S. university campuses in the fall to teach "news literacy" to non-journalism majors.

That's pretty awesome; it does seem to me that people have become startlingly unable to parse information for truth or bias. Agree with what was said above about decades chasing infotainment. In the 90s, there were many efforts to 'draw young readers' back to newspapers. This was generally done by making newspapers more fluffy. A vicious cycle began. I now wonder whether they shoudn't have stayed true to their central value proposition, and been newspapers, full of useful information but not pandering. Same with the network evening news - watch a network nightly news broadcast from 1980. IT's boring, dull, visually unstimulating, sort of quiet, stilted, dour, and serious - and informative.

And yet, I also would like to see places like Stony Brook, and anywhere else that has deep pockets and an interest in public information, get those 50 laid-off journalists - and disaffected journalists driven out of moribund institutions, like those Cool Papa Bell mentions - and get them into a think tank where they can focus exclusively on coming up with a workable model for comprehensive citizenship-focused news reporting that breaks even (nonprofit model) or generates a fair profit.*

*profit-seeking is one of the main problems that brought us to this point. The family-owned newspapers of the early to mid 20th century generally contented themselves with profits that, though large in dollars, were modest enough as compared to other industries. Corporatization required standardized profit models, and the more papers joined corporate empires and were compared side-by-side with other businesses, the less satisfying their profits appeared, the more their budgets were cut, the weaker their content became, and the cycles continued.
posted by Miko at 9:43 PM on March 14, 2009


comfortable profit margins made papers uniquely incapable of adapting to change.

That and printing newspapers is ridiculously expensive and requires expensive infrastructure. Getting something online requires an infrastructure the modern world already has (electricity).
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:43 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hilariously, the first two paragraphs of dydecker's link recapitulate loquacious's comment.
posted by dhartung at 9:50 PM on March 14, 2009


If you had to drop .50 in the internet coin-slot every day to make it run, would you?

Yes, if it meant the fucking pop up, over and under ads would stop. Advertising is fine, but constantly throwing it in my face is a huge turnoff.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:53 PM on March 14, 2009


No, that's has nothing to do with what sank newspapers, and it's not even true.
Well, I should say, anyone could create content that advertisers could advertise on. And I suppose it's true that not anyone can write the news, but many people can, and many people can make money doing it. Many newspapers used their huge profit margins to borrow a lot of money and leverage themselves, and now they can't service that debt. That's whats actually killing them. The NYT had to mortgage their new building because they couldn't get new loans to roll over their previous debt.

The cost structure of actually doing a news source isn't that high and it's entirely doable. Look at Gawker, TPM or the Huffington Post. Those sites do fine on advertising revenue (although I don't know if the HuffPo is profitable, they are VC funded).

But the bottom line is that there are many people capable of writing the news, and many people are doing so profitably.
Talking Points Memo is not going to be helping me understand the potential impact of the wind farm they're building in the next town, or whether my town is improperly engaging in eminent domain land-grabs, or who I should vote for if I don't want casino gambling.
There's no guarantee that a local (monopolized) paper would do that either, as opposed to hopping in bed with the local elites who buy most of the advertising.

When I was a kid I used to ride the city bus to high school, and I would always read opinion columns the free college paper. Until my local paper sued the city to prevent the paper from being given away on the bus! (this was unfair competition). They didn't replace it with anything, you had pay to read the local paper. So they actually removed a free source of information because it competed for advertising dollars. Is that the behavior of altruists who want make sure people are well informed? Hell no.

If my local paper goes down I couldn't be happier. Good fucking riddance.
If you had to drop .50 in the internet coin-slot every day to make it run, would you?
I'm pretty sure I pay more then that for my internet connections. I think I pay like $40for a DSL internet connection (Plus $20 for a useless land line that goes with it) and I just got a new cellphone with data plan that costs $24 a month.
posted by delmoi at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2009


I'm pretty sure I pay more then that for my internet connections.

None of that goes to content.
posted by Miko at 9:56 PM on March 14, 2009


It isn't just the newspapers that are going under. Last week Digital Web Magazine ceased publication. Nick Finck will continue to curate the site, maintaining it so it remains online, but that's it... just archives... no more new content.
posted by netbros at 10:00 PM on March 14, 2009


The family-owned newspapers of the early to mid 20th century generally contented themselves with profits that, though large in dollars, were modest enough as compared to other industries.

Yes. They wanted to put out a newspaper and make money doing it, in a city or town they cared about. The corporate jackals just wanted to make money by putting out a newspaper. It's a subtle, but profound difference.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:00 PM on March 14, 2009


None of that goes to content.

Well, that's not what you asked.
posted by delmoi at 10:16 PM on March 14, 2009


There's no guarantee that a local (monopolized) paper would do that either, as opposed to hopping in bed with the local elites who buy most of the advertising.

Their degree of due diligence could (and does) certainly vary. But a legislative report is a legislative report; it lists everything. I'm more likely to read it if it's right in front of me with everything else that's new today than I am if I have to go searching and sorting for it online at the state's website.

You're right that even before we had entire cities going totally uncovered by a news source, we were already suffering from monopoly. That wasn't too good either. So you're correct that if a number of systems within the newspaper and community fail, the paper could be part of a corrupt system and fail to report independently enough. However, I would still take that scenario any day above a scenario in which there are, simply, 0 newspapers covering that system - there is no possibility of corruption, but also no possibility of information reaching the public in that latter scenario. In addition, newspapers that are less than enterprising in their examination of issues are a dime a dozen, but newspapers that are outrightly corrupt are a comparitive rarity. There is a lot of protection in libel law for citizens where corrupt news reporting is concerned; if the paper was publishing false or knowingly misleading information, there exists a system of redress that citizens can start in motion, and a body of law that applies to all media that claims to be reporting fact.

The cost structure of actually doing a news source isn't that high and it's entirely doable. Look at Gawker, TPM or the Huffington Post. Those sites do fine on advertising revenue (although I don't know if the HuffPo is profitable, they are VC funded).

These exceptions prove the rule. You've chosen some of the relatively few success stories in online news. I would note that these are also more specialty publications than comprehensive news sources; they publish news, but a better analogy for them than 'newspaper' is 'industry rag.' Gawker follows the lead of New York Magazine, Women's Wear Daily, People, Variety, and outlets like that; the other two are political in focus, sort of along the lines of US News and World Report, The Week, Roll Call, etc.

In other words, these sites have scalpelled out a portion of the news audience that they've got the capability to address, and they do it well. They have national readership and so they can survive. But there are very, very, very few of them, and they are far from capable of handling the scope and range of news people need. In order to deliver the same range of news topics that my daily newspaper does, there would need to be hundreds of such sites each focusing on its own content area. And I would find it pretty bothersome to have to visit each in turn, with all the dross it would add onto the page to fill out the few important nuggets each day, in order to quickly absorb the main points of the day's news in many areas, local and national and world.

Whatever the new models are, efficiency and convenience, range and scope, will continue to be important, I think. Otherwise we are looking at a nation of people who don't share any common understanding of issues or information; they all read totally different sources and only look at what they're most interested in. There's no commons. Babel.
posted by Miko at 10:18 PM on March 14, 2009


None of that goes to content.

Well, that's not what you asked.


I assumed you would grasp the implication: if you had to pay for the content on the internet every day, would you?
posted by Miko at 10:19 PM on March 14, 2009


If lighters had been invented first, and matches came along later...

They did, technically sorta.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:22 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


The proper way to get news in the 21st century is through an RSS Reader or a live stream such as Twitter, blog comments or similar. Maybe it'll be something else tomorrow, but right now this allows you to pick and chose specific sources of news. The source of the news doesn't really matter as long as it is authentic to the reader. Viability doesn't really come into play, since there is a wealth of alternative sources. The Times goes tits up? I follow BBC. I don't like BBC anymore? I grab the Economist or CBC or something else. With time I've been getting my feeds directly from reports, directors, writers, people on the ground, first hand witnesses. Someone else might get their feeds from a collection of my feeds. Yet another might get from various combinations of the above. That's how the web works.

Shirky is right. Revenue for newspapers (or tv or anything else really) doesn't play into it at all.
posted by furtive at 10:27 PM on March 14, 2009


Well, here's an example: In my tiny little town a couple of years back a bit of a scandal was uncovered by the local community forum. All of the breaking developments, all of the actual work of researching the issue, was done by forum participants. The local fish-wrap wrote their stories from the forum, quoting it extensively and following up with participants. An isolated incident, sure, but "journalism" can be done in such an environment.

For every council there is a citizen somewhere who follows it because it's their pet interest, and would even be willing to write about it (if they don't already). Might it be biased? Sure. But the solution to that bias would be freely available transcripts from the meetings available to anyone who wants one, or streaming media coverage via webcam, with archives and all that. It's not perfect, but it's one way to get the minutia covered.

For the big stuff, there are the TPM-type sites and places like Slate or their counterpart across the aisle. We should not kid ourselves that printed papers have (or had) no agenda; indeed, many people pride themselves as being "a ______ reader" (fill in the name of the paper closest to your own opinions).

I mourn the death of printed papers...but I haven't bought one in the past 10 years.
posted by maxwelton at 10:29 PM on March 14, 2009


these sites have scalpelled out a portion of the news audience that they've got the capability to address

The problem is the business model surrounding the Internet is too focused on free content for users. If the presumption is you will work for free - going from one internship to another- you don’t have a career in journalism but an experience in journalism. This is the problem because this is what new media sites presume, free content.

The question is how do you take what makes the internet most attractive - free content - and turn a profit? As mentioned above, the answer is in niche markets.

In the Internet world everyone is famous to 15 people. If you can get those 15 to pay for original content, you may be a winner. But that leads to another problem. If anyone can write a blog, where does that leave journalists? You have too much product chasing not enough eyeballs. And with so much content, advertisers have a plethora of potential customers. The problem once again comes down to free content.
posted by netbros at 10:29 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I'm extra cranky. I get passionate and exhausted on this issue really quickly these days. I come from a newspapering family and these conversations have been getting more and more dire for many years. I generally feel very hasty about getting to the propose-some-solutions part. It's a knotty issue, and the only thing I'm sure of is that nobody has a solution that meets the need yet. We have lots of interesting experiments, but no guarantee that what will evolve as the replacement for newspapers will be as good as, or better, for the cause of public information. That 'as-good-or-betterness' is what needs to be the goal.
posted by Miko at 10:29 PM on March 14, 2009


...there is no possibility of corruption, but also no possibility of information reaching the public in that latter scenario.

You seem to be making an a priori assumption that nothing can perform that function besides newspapers. Why? It isn't written in the laws of physics, so far as I know.

What else? Damned if I know, but just because I don't doesn't mean it's impossible.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:30 PM on March 14, 2009


The source of the news doesn't really matter as long as it is authentic to the reader.

This is kind of a fallacy. It does matter in that it breaks down the commons; we no longer have a broad cultural agreement that we're going to consider some knowledge a priority, and that we're going to consider some body of information functionally true. The source does matter.

. The Times goes tits up? I follow BBC. I don't like BBC anymore? I grab the Economist or CBC or something else

These are all traditional journalism outlets with traditional revenue models.The problem that you're not grasping is that when all of these disappear, the replacements will not be able to do what they do. Currently, all the indie people who trade in news are using the major media as the fact-finders, and then (sometimes) augmenting that with other sources they can find and put together. But, with the exception of HuffPo and TPM and a few others alone, they are not originating new reported material. These "directors, writers, people on the ground" who presumably will be motivated to provide news -- who's paying them? Why do they write? What do they stand to gain from it? Who else is reading it? Does it matter if only you know what they know? Are they even correct? Is their information useful? To who? For what? Will it allow you to lead a full civic life with all the information you need to operate in your community and help create the world you want to live in?

maxwelton: I've seen your example happen, too. But scandals are unusual and quite motivating. We don't have scandals every day, but we need accurate news every day. Most people don't have the time to work as hard every day at the news as they did on that forum while it was a hot issue. It's not a sustainable model - it will be part of the picture, but not a reliable regular source. Also, there really isn't someone for every pet issue who will write about it. Having been the only one sitting at meetings taking notes, and knowing even I wouldn't write about it if I weren't paid to, I can say that confidently. The work of government, especially, is too important to entrust to hobbyists that I then have to fact-check. These are our tax dollars at work, and millions at state, every week.
posted by Miko at 10:38 PM on March 14, 2009


However, I would still take that scenario any day above a scenario in which there are, simply, 0 newspapers covering that system - there is no possibility of corruption, but also no possibility of information reaching the public in that latter scenario.

I don't understand why you don't think local blogs or even message boards (or facebook groups!) can't handle this. There are going to be people who are passionate about all of these issues. And people who aren't passionate wouldn't have read the legislative reports anyway.

There is a lot of protection in libel law for citizens where corrupt news reporting is concerned; if the paper was publishing false or knowingly misleading information, there exists a system of redress that citizens can start in motion, and a body of law that applies to all media that claims to be reporting fact.

Uh, what? What on earth are you talking about? I mean, can you tell me what laws you're talking about? Other then Libel which is a very specific charge and can only be acted on by the person libeled there are no laws that I know of against lying in the newspaper. If a news paper lies and says that local politician voted yes when they voted no, there are no laws broken. If a newspaper lies and says something positive about someone, rather then something negative, no laws are broken. If a newspaper prints total fiction, like that the local bank was robbed by Mexican Bandidtos or that entire societies of moon people have been discovered, or that there are WMDs in Iraq or that Jews In Iran will be forced to wear yellow stars no laws are broken.
posted by delmoi at 10:39 PM on March 14, 2009


You seem to be making an a priori assumption that nothing can perform that function besides newspapers. Why? It isn't written in the laws of physics, so far as I know.

What else? Damned if I know, but just because I don't doesn't mean it's impossible.


No, I'm not making that assumption, I'm just pointing out that no one has proposed anything else that can fulfill that function, which is my central point. It's fine to say "old models are dead!" but I feel obligated to point out that most new models which we hear vaguely and optomistically described leave vast swaths of public information utterly untouched. I'm all ears for the new models that work.
posted by Miko at 10:40 PM on March 14, 2009


These are all traditional journalism outlets with traditional revenue models.

The BBC is paid for by a tax on television sets. The BBC world service is paid for by a government grant.
posted by delmoi at 10:42 PM on March 14, 2009


No, I'm not making that assumption, I'm just pointing out that no one has proposed anything else that can fulfill that function, which is my central point.

I said in my other post, local blogs and message boards for smaller communities.
posted by delmoi at 10:43 PM on March 14, 2009


Clay Shriky should tell everyone who Clay Shirky is so readers don't have to look it up via Google. Better publications used to do things like this: "Bob Rock is a senior analyst with the Metal Institute and producer for various dysfunctional rock bands; he appears in the documentary 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster'." I'm sorry, but I don't keep up with Internet "experts" the way I do with pop culture figures, politicians, world historical figures, etc. I had no idea who this guy was/is.
posted by raysmj at 11:02 PM on March 14, 2009


That and printing newspapers is ridiculously expensive and requires expensive infrastructure. Getting something online requires an infrastructure the modern world already has (electricity).

I take it you've never heard of server farms?
posted by raysmj at 11:05 PM on March 14, 2009


Shirky's excellent piece prompts the following thoughts. Individual companies go bankrupt and sometimes later emerge in reorganized form, better able to compete.This is now happening on an industry-wide basis for newspapers. Papers will continue to close, many forever. But a tipping point [term regrettably now reflexively associated with Gladwell] will be reached after which people will be willing to pay for some newspaper-like content. When the New York times had their executive editor answer questions submitted on-line, they were mainly about whether the paper has a viable business model in mind. That paper has a fan base willing to pay for at least some core services, like national and international reporting, but not the things they can get elsewhere (recipes, reviews) for free without much if any loss in quality. The paper will have a smaller "circulation" but a significant new revenue stream. Maybe local reporting can be done on a shoestring by city council or crime buffs on Twitter, but some kinds of reporting do require skills and resources that cost money.

But, I don't know what will actually happen. No one does.
posted by cogneuro at 11:10 PM on March 14, 2009


I'm generally of the "Good riddance" persuasion when it comes to dead tree press. People tend to conflate the ideal of journalism with its practice in America, which is dismal. Supposedly librul institutions like The Times and The Washington Post just rolled over for eight years during the Bush administration. During the 90's, they were instrumental in impeaching a hugely popular president.

I'm sympathetic to the argument that local news stories involving outright corruption or local authorities behaving badly might go unreported, but again, I think this is more of an ideal than actual practice. My previous small-town rag was pretty much just a sounding board for whatever wasteful or stupid government spending project the local councilmen wanted. What was interesting were the blogs that sprung up in response to very specific, hyper-local issues, where random people managed to educate themselves on some fairly inside baseball and put together a decent series of reports.

Was it perfect? Of course not, but it did make me think that it wasn't the worst alternative to the inevitable death of printed newspapers.
posted by bardic at 11:13 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the last couple of times I bought a newspaper, I thought to myself, "Wow, I've pretty much already read every article here on the internet already." There's a big problem if you give content away for free and THEN try to charge for it after it's already been disseminated.

Journalism is a dying art:
TV "journalism" is a farce: see Fox News, CNBC, Local News, national news, TMZ. The only news source which seems to even come close to telling the truth is hosted on a COMEDY network for crying out loud.
Online "journalism" is a joke too: HP, Politico, Drudge, Blogs? Are you kidding me? Nothing more than "letter to the editor" and opinion columns, preaching to their respective choirs.

The problem is: If we expect to get news for free (via internet and TV), who are we going to complain if they're wrong? Are we going to be able to hold these people up to a higher standard?

We might not miss the fluff pieces and hand-holding with advertisers, but we sure are going to miss the hard-hitting, muck-raking, deep-digging pieces which show corruption and greed and graft and evil, which the fluff pieces and advertising pay for. Watergate. Abu Ghraib. Abramoff.
posted by wayofthedodo at 11:16 PM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't understand why you don't think local blogs or even message boards (or facebook groups!) can't handle this. There are going to be people who are passionate about all of these issues. And people who aren't passionate wouldn't have read the legislative reports anyway.


They've had more than 10 years to prove they're up to the job, and they haven't done very well. I think the assumption that passionate hobbyists will pick up the slack is extremely naive and unrealistic.

Uh, what? What on earth are you talking about? I mean, can you tell me what laws you're talking about?

Media accountability is a big issue, historically and in the contemporary world. There are three main governing systems in action: law, professional ethics, and watchdog groups. The way I think about this is that the law defines the outer boundaries of what cannot be said without opening up the outlet to a defamation suit, and touches on certain points of access. Ethics take up where law leaves off; there is much behavior that's legal, but not ethical or useful. There's an established tradition of journalistic codes of ethics which has been very important in structuring the way information has been handled in our lifetimes. Ethics codes are voluntary. They come in two tiers: those developed by national organizations of which individual outlets are members and so adhere to the codes, and those developed by individual outlets that specifically spell out the ethical guidelines for reporters and staff at those outlets (and employment-related consequences for any breaches). Ethics guidelines cover such topics as conflict of interest, truth and accuracy, treatment and identification of sources, and fairness. Finally, the watchdog groups are a set of independent groups who monitor and evaluate major trends in reporting.

The law involved includes defamation, as you mentioned, but also First Amendment law, laws guaranteeing access to public information and freedom of information requests, copyright law, privacy protection. Journalists are not protected any more than any other citizen if they break the law in pursuit of information, and they're subject to subpoena. Lots and lots of resources on journalism law below - I had to prepare the defamation policy for the local public radio station and had some of these at hand.

Media Law Resource Center
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press First Amendment Handbook
Defamation, Libel, and Slander Law
Mass. Bar Association Journalists' Handbook
First Amendment Center Case precedents for misrepresentation of public figures
Media Law Resources and Cases
Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law
Lots of good stuff in the many and various journalism law courses taught in journalism programs

The second tier comes in with voluntary ethics standards. These vary across the industry. Some of the weekly-world-news style rags are just that, entertainment publications, and they don't belong to the professional assocations or subscribe to the ethics statements that legitimate newspapers do. But they can be and often are sued for defamation, as you know. Some ethics statements:

Society of Professional Journalists: EthicsRoundup of ethics codes from the Pew Research Center on Ethics in Journalism (more than 20 major nationwide associations and organizations represented)

I get your point: is everything printed on newsprint true and a paragon of accuracy? No. But it's also not the Wild West, nor is this an area nobody's given any thought to. There are a lot of recourses citizens have if a newspaper is just blatantly misrepresenting people or activities in the coverage area. Market forces are at work, too. Newspapers want to be influential and to operate in the black. You don't have both if you are corrupt. I can actually think of very few newspaper corruption scandals off the top of my head. We've seen our share of plagiarists and liars exposed in recent years (they were fired and/or prosecuted) , but not many in which you could say the paper colluded with shady players. In any case, the potential for all systems to fail and produce that harm is the risk of a free press. Taking down the free press to prevent that from happening has been tried, in certain dictatorships. I like our way better.
posted by Miko at 11:16 PM on March 14, 2009


pwn
posted by wayofthedodo at 11:23 PM on March 14, 2009


The Times and The Washington Post just rolled over for eight years during the Bush administration. During the 90's, they were instrumental in impeaching a hugely popular president.


That's interesting, and I'm not sure I agree. I think the difference is largely attributable to popular will and increasing distractability and poor critical thinking skills. The Times broke some of the most damning stories of the Bush Administration, from the Iraq War's lack of WMD to telecommunications to shady appointments and backroom deals. The problem was - the reporting didn't go anywhere. People noticeably failed to be outraged, and the stories eventually wore their way down the columns.

Part of this is certainly do to the rise of niche media, which really hit its strength during the Bush Years. The Times could report, but if you just switched on Fox News, you heard the Times derided, the facts denied, and sneering accusations of the patriotism of people who didn't share their faith in the leadership. Like it or not, a lot of people found they enjoyed hearing the news through the filter that best fit their bias. Once that splintering began, it further weakened the generalist, moderate press' audience. My mom reported on the GOP 2004 convention, and one of the items in their goody bags was a black-and-white button in Gothic script saying "I don't believe the New York Times."

Those who argue that niche blogs will save the world while decrying the failure of the media to take on the Bush Administration really have to reckon with this. Niche media means that we don't have to reason from the same set of first principles, or even of facts. All major stories lose impact because a large sector of the public simply does not consider them to be properly reported. Therefore, their reaction as citizens also loses impact. There can be no upwelling of an impeachment-hungry horde when a third of people are signed out and reading fashion blogs, a third are watching and reading media sites that are stubbornly pro-Bush, and a third are reading the mainstream moderate press.

Again, the mainstream press and its areas of coverage used to define the ring wherein the public met to debate the basic facts important to the citizens of the country. If we no longer meet anywhere at all, what happens to people's fund of knowledge about what's going on? What happens to citizen power and issue awareness? If we no define any issues as of importance to the majority of people, doesn't that leave a lot of activity free to be carried itself on in the shadows? Do I trust the scary, cranky Libertarian down the road from me with a blog and four sheep to do a serviceable job reporting back to me on how our agricultural commission suggests that local farmers are supposed to comply with the new microchip animal ID tag the federal government is proposing? I can tell you right now because I have to read his fucking blog, no. Fortunately, there are still more reliable sources. Substitute your issues here.
posted by Miko at 11:31 PM on March 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


Even if newspapers aren't living up to the ideals of journalism, I think Miko's point still remains. 90% of the paper may be trash but that remaining 10% is something no one else does. You can't cite hobbyists or the big political blogs as viable replacements because the former is unreliable and the latter doesn't have local reach. So dancing on the grave of traditional media may be fun due to the huge quantity of shit that we swim in these days, but it's still a net loss of information and I don't see how that can be considered a good thing.
posted by palidor at 11:36 PM on March 14, 2009


The work of government, especially, is too important to entrust to hobbyists that I then have to fact-check. These are our tax dollars at work, and millions at state, every week.

My city and my county post transcripts of all public meetings on their websites, and we're kinda hicksville out here. At some point, this will be law (if it isn't already), and there will be standard formats and search capabilities, and at that point we don't need someone sitting at a meeting taking notes because someone is already there doing so. As Delmoi points out, there is almost always someone who is passionately interested in just about every local issue.

I don't think the value of journalism is greatest at the local dog-catcher-absconded-with-the-petty-cash level, in any case. Those small-time issues are the ones people are likely to be passionate about, and are the most likely to get people talking about in a local community forum or on street corners. Where good journalism is really valuable is bringing really big-picture issues to the street corners, where they might not normally be seen. Things like global warming, international or national politics. What solution will eventually unfold here, I don't know, but I don't think newspapers are the only possible way, forevermore, to get this done.

However, trying to keep the slowly decaying corpse of the old-style newspapers around just because the exact right answer hasn't cropped up yet isn't the way forward. Newspapers themselves arose because there was demand for them; their replacement(s) will arise from the same demand, if it's there.
posted by maxwelton at 11:37 PM on March 14, 2009


Oops, I screwed up this link:

Roundup of ethics codes from the Pew Research Center on Excellence in Journalism (more than 20 major nationwide associations and organizations represented)

Their Principles of Journalism are also worth a look and some thought in the "whither journalism" discussion. Are these principles still valid? ARe we still talking about the same entreprise? What here can/will be sacrificed?
posted by Miko at 11:40 PM on March 14, 2009


An interesting article, from 2004.
posted by wayofthedodo at 11:44 PM on March 14, 2009


My city and my county post transcripts of all public meetings on their websites, and we're kinda hicksville out here. At some point, this will be law (if it isn't already), and there will be standard formats and search capabilities, and at that point we don't need someone sitting at a meeting taking notes because someone is already there doing so.

See my note earlier about how journalism arose because people don't have time to read meeting transcripts. Transparency is wonderful, but part of the function of journalism is to provide a knowledgeable filter so that a busy person can absorb a wide range of important information daily, rather than spending an entire hour reading one meeting transcript for the one important nugget about how you are going to have to pay for new recycling containers this year, or whatever.

I think that the two kinds of journalism, local/state and national/global, are both important. It's amazing, in fact, how often they're the same. What's your town doing about energy independence?

People feel that there will still be demand. I'm personally not sure there's enough demand for the kinds of information that people really need and should have to work with to make decisions. To some degree, information in newspapers created its own demand on a daily basis. Now people are presented with a bewildering variety of choices, and they find their preferences distracting them away from the somewhat duller basic issues of public life. Distraction isn't the same as replacement. We are great at distraction, not so great at replacing journalistic functions. Online and often in broadcast TV, we've kept the super interesting content and split it out into 17 bazillion niches which people do or don't choose to read, and just really ditched the nuts and bolts completely, so people oddly have more information than they've ever had -- but they're less informed. New content has distracted us away, but it has not really replaced or even provided the information that is important to good citizenship. As a result I think people, overall, are a lot less involved in citizenship than they should be to make a democracy work.
posted by Miko at 11:51 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Chocolate Pickle: When it comes to newspapers, no man is more responsible for their demise than Craig Newmark. Craigslist has cut the legs out of newspapers by stealing a rising share of their main source of revenue: classified advertising.

Today's Toronto Globe and Mail has a story on the uncertain future of newspapers, including the following anecdote:
One misstep [Phil] Bronstein can pinpoint was what happened in the mid-1990s when he arranged a meeting between the [San Francisco] Examiner's tech department and a Bay Area computer whiz in his early 40s named Craig Newmark, who was brimming with ideas about the ways online media would transform traditional advertising models.

The tech department ultimately shrugged Mr. Newmark off, figuring it could do better itself. That spurned geek went on to create Craigslist, which would suck away one of newspapers' steadiest sources of income. It's a glaring example of how the industry has stumbled in the Internet age.

"They were like, 'Nah, we're going to kick his ass,'" Mr. Bronstein recalled. "Well guess what? A hundred million dollars later, we didn't."
If newspapers die, who else can do investigative journalism? I'm thinking that less frequently published magazines--the New Yorker, for example--might be able to fill this role. The typical online magazine business model seems to be to give away some articles for free, but to maintain a subscriber base by providing full access, with past archives, to subscribers.

Not sure who can do the mundane job of covering City Hall. Raw material (transcripts of public hearings) could easily be published by municipal governments, the hard part would be sifting through it and summarizing it. Would people do this for free? Maybe, maybe not. The success of the open-source software movement suggests that ego is enough of an incentive for volunteers to get a lot done through collaboration. But writing software and covering municipal politics are two different things.
posted by russilwvong at 12:04 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Miko writes "They've had more than 10 years to prove they're up to the job, and they haven't done very well. I think the assumption that passionate hobbyists will pick up the slack is extremely naive and unrealistic."

My, what a typically bitchy thing for a status quo defender to say. In relative terms, ten years is a blip compared to the decades it took for journalistic integrity and excellence to evolve in the forms of Judith Miller, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair. As the linked article mentions, we're dealing with a paradigm shift, and nobody knows for certain what "news" will look like ten years from now, other than that it's highly unlikely much of it will be printed out onto sheets of wood pulp.

I've seen "niche" blogs on local issues that did a much better job of reporting than did the local paper and the so-called experts, who really were more about booster-ism of the vested interests (local businesses and politicians) than they were about reporting the truth. YMMV, but I find it refreshing and a positive change in general, albeit one that's effectively another nail in the coffin of newspapers.

FWIW, I grew up loving my own local paper, The Washington Post. Seeing it fall apart over the past decade pained me a bit, but then again I can get much better reporting and much better writing from other sources, with an occasional glimpse at the Post for local news about my former home.

I guess it frustrates me how you keep referring to a golden era of objective, publicly accountable journalism that I don't think ever existed. I'd agree it used to be better in many ways, but the press colluding with the powers that be has been going on for centuries. Now at least I get to act as my own filter in terms of what news and opinion I want to consume. Not sure why that's such a scary thought, beyond the fact it means we don't really need big news outlets any longer (at least American ones, since it sounds like the BBC is doing just fine).
posted by bardic at 12:08 AM on March 15, 2009


Shirky's ideas are not entirely new; as others mentioned, these are things that those of us watching media (and newspapers in particular) have been thinking about for a while. The truth is, though, that it's easier to state the problem (newspapers going out of business and the journalism that is done there disappearing) and its sources (the loss of advertising revenue, from craigslist and other media better suited to ads, scandals, adapting to the internet, trying to do exponentially more with less) than it is to do something about it. There are a lot of very smart people thinking about this, but there is no clear answer.

Shirky's point seems to be that from this perspective, we cannot know. From here within the revolution, we can't see what it will be like afterwards. It will be different, that's for sure, but how or when it stabilizes is anyones guess.

Which is a nice statement of something we've already grasped, but it doesn't particularly help us now.

What I would give to be in charge of one of those old family newspapers today! What I would give to only worry about the quality of our news, our competitors, and whether or not we made our wages instead of our returns to investors and the size of our debt. What I would give for a few years and a dozen reporters who cared about journalism, just trying to make a difference/a modern model/a paper.

I've been pretty involved in my college newspapers, and sometimes it seems like we're the closest thing left to those papers, like we're in the best spot to take chances and live the revolution. But other times it seems like we hardly know how to write a story, much less innovate journalism. And looking at the recent ACP winners, it looks like we barely even know how to design a paper anymore (but, then again, if the SND's a good judge, those of us interested in design should just be looking at magazines). And when we finally do reach beyond just putting together stories, when we can finally design a decent paper, we look at what we could try and there's not even any good candidates. The "community message board" at my alma-matter was filled with trolls and memes. The closest thing we had to a blog linked to articles from the campus newspaper or the local news station. To be honest, we're not even sure what direction to go in to test out something new as a paper.

And now that I've spent two hours writing that and wondering if I should expound more, I see that the thread has moved to the debate over whether or not we even need journalists, now that we have the power of crowds. The simple answer, I very much believe, is "yes," and Miko seems to be constructing the long answer here already. I'll only add that it's a full time job to hit the street, find the right people and talk to them, even when they don't want to say a word to a reporter like you.
posted by ADoubtfulTrout at 12:08 AM on March 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Now at least I get to act as my own filter in terms of what news and opinion I want to consume. Not sure why that's such a scary thought

Because then the only content on the internet would be porn and pictures of cats. Oh wait.
posted by wayofthedodo at 12:15 AM on March 15, 2009


Not sure what internet you use wayofthedodo, but I get plenty of solid content on it. (Thank you metafilter!)

"The truth is, though, that it's easier to state the problem. . . than it is to do something about it."

True, but it's not like we need to look at tea leaves and entrails either. Off the top of my head, TPM, Dailykos, and TMZ are doing what counts, i.e., making a profit. It's not rocket surgery, you just need to identify an audience and write for them.
posted by bardic at 12:29 AM on March 15, 2009


Thank you metafilter!

So really, you're still relying on other people to produce content and then have other people filter it for you.

And I'll bet the farm that the ratio of mefi posts to WP, NYT or WSJ vs. those to TMZ, Kos, TPM is astronomical.
posted by wayofthedodo at 12:40 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Personally, I don't really read or enjoy newspapers that much, but I wonder who we will quote as authority if they do go—you know, "The Post says...", "The Times thinks...", etc., etc. It does seem to me that they are providing an important cultural and political voice, even if I don't personally find them that interesting. I also believe that if enough people want it, some alternative model will come along. A quick glance through history will show countless examples of people crying that the sky is falling whenever revolutionary changes come along, only to find out that life does go on, in many cases better than before. That said, I don't think we can be too complacent about this matter. It is necessary for people to be involved and right now especially, it's too easy to leave it to someone else. I do wonder, however, if some kind of wikipedia style solution might work...?
posted by blue shadows at 12:52 AM on March 15, 2009


The journalism y'all are mourning never existed, the whole enterprise has always been self-serving bullshit. There has never been a real-world tradition of investigative print journalism, the papers always functioned as mouthpieces for the powerful, nothing but stenography.

Even the Watergate story was spoon-fed!
posted by blasdelf at 12:52 AM on March 15, 2009


I don't think I'm following you. Of course I rely on other people, but I no longer have to rely on the one-way reporter-transmission model any longer. Or at least I can if I want to, but it isn't necessary.
posted by bardic at 12:54 AM on March 15, 2009


I'm just curious what people think we're trying to decide. There is nothing for us to decide. We could all agree that we're not ready yet for newspapers to go away. But they're going anyway.

Something will arise. People are social, curious and critical — not to equal degrees and at all times, but pervasively so. You find these drives throughout history and across places.

Seriously, do you think William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer invented the urge to have the story told and to fuss over it until it's told right? It's a part of the fabric of human cultures — along with violence, compassion, clan behavior, aesthetics, the works. We want to know where we belong, and we're inquisitive and argumentative. Suppose a mere 1/2 of 1% of the population wants to ask tough questions and look through documents and summarize interviews or make podcasts or call city officials. That's still a million and a half people in this country — far larger than the population of Professional Journalists.

And some of them will be upset about corruption in dog shows, or pissed off at nursing standards or fanatic about Mario Kart. There will be (and already is) a huge mass of amateur interests, profound ones. In the small town where I live we just had a school bond, and people argued, wrote alternate plans, gave tours of the schools, put up websites, started Facebook groups. Yes, these look messy and inadequate right now. But something will arise.

Or it won't! But whether it will or not, we can no longer count on the infrastructure of newspapers to take care of it for us. So quit trying to decide if we should or shouldn't.
posted by argybarg at 1:14 AM on March 15, 2009


It sounds like a lot of people regard this as an either/or thing when it can be both/and perhaps? I despise corporate media and the lack of substantive coverage as much as the next guy, but those acting like print journalism has never produced any quality investigative work or that it is an otherwise irrelevant model might want to consider their biases. There is a long tradition of editorial oversight and fact-checking that is tremendously valuable and so far lacking in the new online media cited here, and I think dismissal of the whole system as corrupt and worthless is a position lacking in nuance that serves no one. It's not about protecting the status quo, but finding a way that many different types of journalism can coexist while being profitable and serving the public good.
posted by palidor at 1:15 AM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Suppose a mere 1/2 of 1% of the population wants to ask tough questions and look through documents and summarize interviews or make podcasts or call city officials.

this figure strikes me as wildly optimistic.
posted by radiosig at 1:48 AM on March 15, 2009


An old (and now deceased) friend of mine who managed an NPR news/classical radio station back in the day used to have this sign hanging in his office:
Any institution acting as a conduit will always be replaced by a more efficient conduit.
posted by ldenneau at 2:17 AM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Baldric, the point I'm trying to make is that relying on news from blogs or really the internet is a bad idea. You complain about newspapers not being truthful, and blogs will be even worse, since they are based solely on an advertising model. Print is dead, ok. But the subscription model is still the only way to get good information.
posted by wayofthedodo at 3:05 AM on March 15, 2009


To emphasize what bardic pointed out above, there is a local blog which has been reporting about the housing bubble for four years now, long before there was anything other than reprints of press releases ("buy now or be priced out forever!") from the National Association of Realtors in the two local major papers. Indeed, it's only been the last few months that the local papers have dared to print anything other than pure boosterism about the real estate market, source of their largest remaining advertisers.

Obviously, not all journalism is like this, and I don't think the "random dude's blog" model is anywhere near ready to step into big-kid journalism shoes, if it ever will be. Maybe the "aternative weeklies" will pick up the slack? I don't think the free paper you grab to read while drinking a coffee is ready to go away yet.

I do appreciate the "filter" argument about transcripts and such, but sometimes the filtering can exclude information I'm particularly interested in, like planned road projects on my two-lane. I can do an in-page search for locations of particular interest to me on a transcript which I cannot do on a filtered story.

I don't hate newspapers, but I've never taken a subscription to one, even before the internet. I think it's fine to lament the passing of the best of them. But for every great paper there are 100 mediocre papers that are essentially printers of press releases and AP wire stories.
posted by maxwelton at 3:12 AM on March 15, 2009


Miko writes "They've had more than 100 years to prove they're up to the job, and they haven't done very well. I think the assumption that passionate hobbyists will pick up the slack investigative journalism exists is extremely naive and unrealistic."

You are currently in the midst of the second looting of the US treasury in a decade. Trillions of dollars have been stolen by Insurance companies, Telco companies, Arms companies and politicians. Your media has been at best silent and maybe complicit. What exactly are we mourning here? Daddy's legacy?
posted by fullerine at 3:48 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Baldric"

How did you know my Dwarvish name?
posted by bardic at 3:56 AM on March 15, 2009


Newspapers, in practice, are often biased rags whose coverage trends more and more towards whatever is easiest to pick up. It's fairly easy to grab the AP and some hot news online and vomit out some celebrity culture crap.

However, good journalism has some corners that I do not think 'net-news (for lack of a better term) will easily reach. Some stories require time to track, long-term coverage, carefully-cultivated contacts, and monetary investment. We see less and less of these, unfortunately, due to a demand that the profit margins must be high and ever-increasing, but they still appear. Citizen journalism, unless it's funded by wealthy and peculiar patrons, simply will not track a story for that long, will not fly over to another country (or even to the Mint 500), and will not make friends with Washington insiders.

Would Watergate have been broken by a guy with Wordpress and a "secret" hotmail account? It is certainly possible, but likely?

The mainstream media, when it passes, will have mostly itself to blame. After decades of fluff content, we will nearly have forgotten what it could be capable of, and as such, few will mourn it when it goes. This does not mean, however, that we did not lose something of potential value, only that the potential had gone to waste for so long we had forgotten it was ever there.
posted by adipocere at 5:36 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of surprised by people who think that without newspapers we'll get no information. ... What do you think of sites like Talking Points Memo?

That it's severely biased because it's only concerned with being a watchdog for Republicans and has no interest in publishing negative content about a Democrat (unless it's a Democrat who's attacking other Democrats that TPM prefers, e.g. Lieberman attacking Obama in the 2008 race). Has TPM ever criticized a Democrat for being too naively liberal or too wedded to traditional Democratic interests? Sure you can criticize MSM for having its own biases, but at least they're trying to have some objectivity; TPM thrives on its lack of objectivity.


Our need for professional journalism is fucking enormous, and its loss is a catastrophe in motion.

If that's so obviously true that you can make it clear in a brief internet posting, don't you think some multimillionaire philanthropist will figure that out and fund a solution?
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:59 AM on March 15, 2009


I'm surprised at how much reverence some people here seem to have for the idea of the "newspaper" as the thing that effectively gives you information about serious stuff going on in the world. We need to remember how inefficient newspapers are, partly because they include a lot of filler that people don't need. Matthew Yglesias makes the point:
The world is not currently lacking for sports coverage. Nor is there some kind of critical shortfall in people offering opinions about politics. Business reporting actually seems to have a viable economic model behind it. Similarly, lifestyle journalism continues to be viable in a number of formats. ...

[A] newspaper is a gigantic bundle of paper covering miscellaneous topics. The rationale for lumping all those topics into a single geographically-bound institution has to do with the economic logic of printing and distributing bundles of paper, and very little to do with the economic logic of producing and disseminating a digital media product.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:04 AM on March 15, 2009


Would Watergate have been broken by a guy with Wordpress and a "secret" hotmail account? It is certainly possible, but likely?

I don't know. But a Republican candidate for a major office was, in effect, nominated for that candidacy by a college sophomore.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:28 AM on March 15, 2009


If that's so obviously true that you can make it clear in a brief internet posting, don't you think some multimillionaire philanthropist will figure that out and fund a solution?

Although I generally rely on Batman to swoop down and solve the world's maladies, I've been finding lately that this isn't always the most dependable solution.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:45 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or it won't! But whether it will or not, we can no longer count on the infrastructure of newspapers to take care of it for us. So quit trying to decide if we should or shouldn't.

Oh, I'm not trying to decide anthing. I accept like everyone else that the age of the newspaper is winding down. What I am doing is arguing that there's a lot of starry-eyed utopianism in assuming that something new will arise to take over all the useful functions of journalism, for an equally low cost. I have trouble accepting that not only newspapers, but their public functions, were a historical anomaly. For about 100 years we had a highly democratized, cheap, portable, frequently updated comprehensive information platform produced by a skilled profession with independence, ethical standards, experience, and a willingness to do the hard and boring part of journalism. In the future, it's likely that we just won't have something as good. Journalism has had its failures, like every profession, but print newspaper journalism of the 20th centurywill probably gain a place as one of the great historical institutions.

Something stands to be lost - probably is already lost. The future of the news industry is a fascinating topic, and I agree that absolutely nobody knows what's next. What I am against is the complacency of assuming that something equally comprehensive, equally independent, equally democratic, and equally responsible is going to take its place. There's no reason to assume this is so. Something will replace newspapers, but as a system, it's likely that it will just not be as good. Only the subscription model seems to be approaching that. The online models fail significantly as a fourth estate in many ways, no matter how all of us love our online reads.

I care that the public has good information, enough reliable information to participate in a democracy, and what may happen as an inadvertent result of information moving online is that we simply can't sustain the depth and breadth of information coverage that we've enjoyed today. If there's no stopping that, so be it. But those who are gleefully dancing on its grave are simply refusing to reckon with the real nature of the loss.
posted by Miko at 7:01 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


What I am doing is arguing that there's a lot of starry-eyed utopianism in assuming that something new will arise to take over all the useful functions of journalism, for an equally low cost.

the political parties and pressure groups will replace journalism with online propaganda and reality fudging full of confirmation bias, cherry picking and outright lies - people will select the outlets that confirm their own prejudices and the extremists and conspiracy "truthers" will monopolize public discourse

it's what a good part of the american people, right, left or fringe actually want - in 50 years, people may know less about objective history and reality than we know right now

i can think of two periods, at least, when the newspaper industry was very similar to the circumstances above - one was 1850s america and the other was weimar germany

the results were pretty horrific
posted by pyramid termite at 7:45 AM on March 15, 2009


For about 100 years we had a highly democratized, cheap, portable, frequently updated comprehensive information platform ...

We have one of those humming away, possibly in your pocket but certainly in front of you right now. It is, in fact, cheaper, more frequently updated and arguably more democratized.

produced by a skilled profession with independence, ethical standards, experience, and a willingness to do the hard and boring part of journalism.

I worked in newspapers — wrote for them, did some editing, produced graphics and layouts. You're describing a very, very narrow minority of the people who work in newspapers, and a very tiny minority of journalistic activity. Nearly all of the people I worked with were, to some extent, much like civil servants. They did their work, they often felt lost or overwhelmed, they often didn't care or know that they were doing an inadequate job. The bulk of what they put out was lazy. They were very much like all other human beings in this regard.

The profession itself had a certain code but rarely lived up to it. Education reporters, for instance, weren't going to take shots at the people they had to call for quotes every day. They weren't going to mine data in search of an obscure budgeting point. Yes, they went to school board meetings — an dutifully wrote down what happened, with quotes. Very little actual insight happens this way. 97% of newspapers consisted of recording the he said-she said that was laid out for them.

I watched my profession fail, and I knew it was failing and wasn't going to change. So I left. After I left, the profession failed more spectacularly than I had thought possible. Journalists presided blandly over the absolute gutting of our economy; the insanity of Enron and national-level Ponzi schemes; the marketing of one of the most idiotic and needless wars we've had. Someone really needs to get fired. I'd prefer it wasn't the New York Times, which is stylish and sometimes has real insight, but if that's what it takes, then so be it.

The urge to communicate, to hear a good story and find out if it's true, does not exist at the discretion of those who publish newspapers. Something good, perhaps better, will take its place.
posted by argybarg at 8:18 AM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


This whole subject is well outside anything I consider myself knowledgeable about, so cut me some slack here, but it seems to be that the discussion here is focused on news being delivered by either deadtree papers or blogs.

Is it not possible to still have generalized news reporting that is paid for by the reader (rather than solely by ad revenue), and simply alter the delivery method?
Every morning I wake up, make coffee, sit down at the computer to check my emails, and at the same time, I read the headlines on my homepage and click on any that seem interesting to me, international, national, or local. My husband does the the same thing every morning over in Melbourne, his homepage is linked with The Age, the big paper there.
It's not the most intensive news filter (mine, not The Age), but it's something that existing newspapers could improve upon and build on.

I think that at some point, subscription rates for these services would be more accepted as well. I remember when TV used to be free, now I pay to have a better selection than just the four channels that were and still are free. I remember when water used to be free, now people pay to have theoretically better water to drink. Why couldn't the same thing happen for online new sources?

I know that the NYT tried to do a subscription service once before, but was the timing and execution right?
Maybe something that's more an amalgam of NYT and Gmail or Yahoo or whatever the more popular homepages tend to be might be a more efficient means of getting the news to the end user.

I think that as a whole, we internet users are quite spoiled in that we expect a lot of quality content without having to pay for it. I'm not convinced that this is a system that will last, simply because it's too difficult to make it work long term.

Where this breaks down, and what I think some commenters on this thread are forgetting, is that there are whole swaths of the population that either don't have online access or have the time to sit in front of the computer, or, (as in my brothers case) don't trust anything that comes from the internets.
posted by newpotato at 8:37 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse.

As someone who worked in newspapers for years and was one of the ignored when I returned from working at a dot com I can tell you with first hand experience that this description is dead on. Many of the people I know who cared about journalism AND the future of how journalism is disseminated got frustrated and quit because we were made to feel like we were part of the problem.

I had a conversation with a neighbor yesterday who is a local small business owner and summed up his disgust with the local newspaper like this: why should he pay the rates they demand when he can reach his customers for pennies on the dollar through a web site he can create and with some SEO he can place on the first page of a google search? The paper's marketing folks went out of their way to treat him like a nobody and acted like they were doing him a favor to take his ad dollars. He now has an outlet that never existed 10 years ago. Why would he bother with the paper?
posted by photoslob at 9:21 AM on March 15, 2009


I care that the public has good information, enough reliable information to participate in a democracy, and what may happen as an inadvertent result of information moving online is that we simply can't sustain the depth and breadth of information coverage that we've enjoyed today. If there's no stopping that, so be it. But those who are gleefully dancing on its grave are simply refusing to reckon with the real nature of the loss.

Bemoaning it is not the same as reckoning with it. We're not going to find a solution if we're not looking for it. Sure, some people aren't looking for it because they think it's already here, but it seems pretty clear you're not looking for it because you don't believe it can exist.

They other day someone came to my door offering me a free trial subscription to my local paper. I told him I didn't want the paper, even for free, because it was too much hassel to have a physical paper laying around, needing to be moved out of the way and eventually recycled. I told him I read my news online. He told me about everything that's not available on the newspaper's website. I wanted to say "then why don't you put that on your own website and offer me a subscription for that?" but he was clearly just reading lines he had been given. I doubt he even subscribed himself.

Maybe you're right that a website can't bring in the revenue to support local journalism, but as a consumer (and hobbyist producer) of local journalism, I've never been offered that option, even after asking for it. No one's doing those experiments, so how would you know if you were wrong? At least the overly optimistic side is testing their assumptions.
posted by scottreynen at 9:34 AM on March 15, 2009


I've always looked at newspapers as curators and tellers of a pretty comprehensive, cohesive story of the society it functioned in -- geographically, historically, and culturally. A shared story the society as a whole could -- and did -- relate to, whether in agreement or opposition. (Not that a newspaper is the only organization/format able to tell such a shared story, only it is one of the very few ones that actually does.)

My biggest concern is not that the quality, depth, or range of reporting will go to hell (although it's certainly a possibility), but that journalism will continue to fragment and specialize. And that our limited time and commitment as individuals for consuming and/or participating in the news will make us increasingly specialized and fragmented too.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it will not just mean the end of the newspaper / media industry as we know it; it will mean a different society, a different community to live in.
posted by Glee at 9:38 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe if TV and the internet had reached their damn convergence already, we'd just be talking about how all print media was becoming TV/digital media, instead of actually facing a gap in reliable news reporting until said convergence happens. Instead of subscriptions, we would just pay our cable bill to make sure we got Local News Channel X. Several of my local TV stations already have "weather only" digital channels, etc; not too hard to imagine a local-news feed that could be video and/or text, viewable online, with reporters to package it/categorize it. And then blogs would feed off of those as they do now.

I have no predictions or reassurances; we may come down to NPR, the NY Times, and the Wall Street Journal being our only news sources for a while. Or maybe just NPR (and the BBC I guess).

Sadly, as far as my local paper goes, it would not be much of a diminishment. Our TV news does most of the "city council/local scandal/baby found in dumpster!" coverage, and the paper seems mostly concerned with sports stadiums, what our new neighbors the George W. Bushes are up to, and how difficult life has become for rich people who don't want to pay taxes.
posted by emjaybee at 10:52 AM on March 15, 2009


We had a related thread not so long ago. A few heavyweight dailys which support investigative reporting get sold at newstands, delivered to home or office or can be read in bars and cafes and libraries. These have cost and circulation problems. Apart from these few, most telling journalism seems to be printed in weeklies or monthlies. TV journalism seems pretty dire especially in the US with the exception seeming to be PBS. Maybe the model is changing away from dailies? Indepth exposures and investigative reporting will maybe then bepicked up by the blogs and daily flysheets which want filler between advertisements. I am one of those people who want interesting reporting without the fluff pieces or news about TV culture and I suspect like many others am happy to buy or subscribe to "quality" publications.
Information is power and power is information will still hold true whatever format it arrives in.
posted by adamvasco at 12:29 PM on March 15, 2009


My fishsticks used to come from cod. Now they come from halibut.
posted by furtive at 12:53 PM on March 15, 2009


That and printing newspapers is ridiculously expensive and requires expensive infrastructure. Getting something online requires an infrastructure the modern world already has (electricity).

As someone who lost his job at an online journalism site after 9/11 due to bandwidth going through the roof and advertising falling off a cliff at the same time I'd like to let you know it ain't that simple.
posted by photoslob at 6:37 PM on March 15, 2009


Miko, your original comment indicated that there was some kind of legal recourse for citizens if newspapers printed inaccurate or misleading information, and I asked, other then libel, what you were talking about. Voluntary ethical guides are nice and all but hardly the same thing, especially since there isn't actually anything a citizen could do if their local paper lies to them.

The law involved includes defamation, as you mentioned, but also First Amendment law, laws guaranteeing access to public information and freedom of information requests, copyright law, privacy protection. Journalists are not protected any more than any other citizen if they break the law in pursuit of information, and they're subject to subpoena.

The first amendment actually protects lies (again, if they're not libelous).

The public access laws have nothing to do with the press, anyone can make those requests from the government, be they newspaper reporters, bloggers, or just concerned citizens. They don't do anything to protect people from bad journalism.

Privacy protection laws have nothing to do with inaccurate or misleading information printed in newspapers.

Contrary what you've said, four states do have Journalist Shield laws, including California.

Again, none of these things have anything to do with citizens having any kind of recourse against a newspaper that prints inaccurate or misleading information. And the idea that voluntary ethical standards will protect anyone from anything is laughable if they are not followed or enforced.

They've had more than 10 years to prove they're up to the job, and they haven't done very well. I think the assumption that passionate hobbyists will pick up the slack is extremely naive and unrealistic.

I think Talking Points Memo's breaking of the U.S. Attorney's scandal was pretty impressive. And I think it's naïve and unrealistic to think that voluntary ethical standards cooked up in ivory towers are somehow going to actually apply to small town papers.

Would Watergate have been broken by a guy with Wordpress and a "secret" hotmail account? It is certainly possible, but likely?

that's exactly how the Mark Foley scandal broke, remember?
posted by delmoi at 6:48 PM on March 15, 2009


Delmoi: exactly how much of what is printed in newspapers or their online counterparts is bad journalism? All? Half? .1%?

Also, Josh Marshall and TPM are great examples about what's right about online journalism but guess what Marshal did before founding TPM: wrote for the dead tree media you're calling into question.
posted by photoslob at 7:28 PM on March 15, 2009


guess what Marshal did before founding TPM

And guess what he and his staffers do when they need to research someone's career background, history, or connections or the history of an issue? Go to newspapers and news archives. Wholly-internet-generated reporting is not off its training wheels - they still rely for a huge percentage of their raw information on news gathered from traditional media. And then there are all the stories that they just don't care or need to cover.

delmoi, I don't think I ever asserted that there are laws that ensure newspapers only print the truth, and I don't think any of us would wish for such laws. The point of the First Amendment is, indeed, for a very wide range of content to be distributed without tyranny or state censorship. What I was saying is that the recourse citizens have if false information about individuals, or representation in a false light, is committed is pretty strong. Because a newspaper is public record and widely read, there is an opportunity for accountability and the use and application of the law is an important part of the work of news outlets.

And in any case, the factual accuracy of most mainstream news reporting has really never been an enormous problem, and if the idea that news outlets can't be trusted is an argument for the end of the news organization model, then it is also an argument against internet-based news organizations, which even less in the way of law and ethical guidelines. So we still aren't looking at an improvement there.
posted by Miko at 8:02 AM on March 16, 2009


Talking Points Memo strikes me as just incorporating the same business model as a newspaper, buy most of their content from the wire services, add some editorial localization, and bundle it with advertising that pays for a small quantity of audience-targeted content.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:07 AM on March 16, 2009


This will be the topic of today's Talk of the Nation, starting now (2 PM EDT).
posted by Miko at 11:05 AM on March 16, 2009


Among the points made:

The NYT has half its readership online, but earns only 10% of revenue there.

The problem is not declining audience: average readership of newspaper news sources in the aggregate is UP (when websites are included). The issue is that the online readership does not create sufficient revenue to fund newsgathering and reporting activities. Some think newspapers should continue the same essential service but provide new ways of monetizing usage.
posted by Miko at 11:17 AM on March 16, 2009


Another model suggested by TotN guest: Use cable bill as carrier for subscriptions to pay-for-content sites - might include newspapers but also other info sites like Weather.com, MLB.com, etc. One bundled payment.

I'm still troubled by questions of access. Though many of us who are on MeFi frequently forget this, internet access for millions of people is intermittent, limited, or nonexistent. There are two problems - how do we be sure information is gathered and reported, and how do we make sure people can get it. Libraries, of course, have been important sources for the deadtree paper, and will continue to be for internet news access, but they are still not able to deliver comprehensive or portable access and I know the purchase, maintenance, and support training for publics who require library internet access shifts a lot of the infrastructure problem onto them and their budgets.

TotN: This 'dying' industry averages 11% profit in 2008, earning $38 billion in ad revenue and $7 in subscription revenue.
posted by Miko at 11:37 AM on March 16, 2009


If that's so obviously true that you can make it clear in a brief internet posting, don't you think some multimillionaire philanthropist will figure that out and fund a solution?

Although I generally rely on Batman to swoop down and solve the world's maladies, I've been finding lately that this isn't always the most dependable solution.


Although I generally rely on internet commenters to have a constructive debate about serious issues in the form of one-sentence zingers, I've been finding lately that this isn't always the most dependable solution.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:18 PM on March 16, 2009


don't you think some multimillionaire philanthropist will figure that out and fund a solution?

Well. I'm happy to take that on a serious fashion. I happen to work in a field where this wish is expressed at least monthly: "surely/if only some multimillionare philanthropist would take an interest in [worthy project]!"

The problems are many. First, multimillionaire philanthropists are relatively few in number. Many multimillionaires come to philanthrophy ass backwards, don't actually think that much about giving, rely on counselors to choose their charitable aims for them, and tend to pick well-established charities over startups and innovations.

The other kind of multimillionaire philanthropist - the forward-thinking, innovative kind who delights in giving - often has already been tracking an issue or idea for years, and gives in ways that are really specific. Their college, to endow a science center. A global food aid program. Computers for kids. Whatever their own hobbyhorse is. Expecting someone who is self-directed enough to have their own charitable aims to just happen to have those aims lined up with the need of a sector that, until pretty much now, was exclusively for-profit is wishing for a genie in a bottle or a fairy godmother.

There are funders who support journalistic charities, though. Right now, they are doing a lot of giving to things like the Pew Center and the Knight Foundation, for the research and data-gathering which are now assisting us in paying attention and giving us the set of facts we are reasoning from.

Finally, even when angel' funders materialize, they tend to be full of all kinds of talk like "dollar-for-dollar match" and "show sustainability within five years" and "augmented with earned revenue" and "strategic investment." In other words, they aren't backing up a truck full of free money. They expect their investment to be leveraged into an ongoing and sustainable public service. Thus, places that are already ongoing and sustainable are the ones most likely to get funded - such as NPR, already a nonprofit with fundraising abilities and demonstrated sustainable growth, who gets some very major gifts.

Wishing for Grandaddy Bigbucks to die and leave the news industry a future is not a practical plan for these reasons.
posted by Miko at 6:33 PM on March 16, 2009


As a fan of print journalism and a relative of print journalists, I've been watching this thread with interest.

Miko, let me say that your comments have been excellent and thought-provoking.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:06 AM on March 17, 2009


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