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From Der Spiegel: Should U.S. Newspapers Get State Aid?
October 29, 2009 2:05 PM   Subscribe

The Downie/Schudson Report, as it's widely called, is cautiously optimistic that journalism will survive, but doesn't beat around the bush. It urges a number of fairly radical, controversial suggestions on how to reinvent the news media without killing "accountability journalism," that critical, dirt-digging, power-questioning but expensive journalism America is famous for.
posted by jason's_planet (27 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
...that America romantically likes to believe it's famous for.

Watergate was a long, long time ago.
posted by rokusan at 2:17 PM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


The link to the report in that article is more interesting to me. I do not expect you'll see print journalism going down the path of state funding. I can imagine a NPR style model where people willingly donate to insure papers stay in business. I don't see this either, but think it's more probable.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:20 PM on October 29, 2009


The article (and supporting interview) both make the same annoying leap that always bothers me in these pieces. Yes, newspapers are dying, but that's not "journalism" in any more than a historically affected way. Newspapers are dying because of their ridiculous and last-century overhead involving trucks, trees and gallons of ink. Information is not dying, nor is the public's desire for more of it. Just because we don't buy buggies anymore doesn't mean we are anti-travel.

Good journalism can happen in any medium. There's nothing about the Internet that makes investigative journalism difficult: if anything the open-forum nature of much of the Web makes it easier and more powerful, as any number of Internet Detective examples from 4Chan to MeFi demonstrate. There's nothing stopping that sort of approach from being expanded to bigger questions, and nothing blocking "serious" journalists form taking part, other than their own stubborn old-school egos.

The distraction over "socialized news" is even less on-target, considering that one of the first things I think of when it comes to good investigative work isn't mentioned here: PBS's very very good Frontline, which is a publicly funded effort already. The CBC in Canada (more socialism!) also has a couple of good investigative shows that I forget the names of right now, but they definitely go after money and power with classic hard-nosed investigation.
posted by rokusan at 2:26 PM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


Good journalism can happen in any medium. There's nothing about the Internet that makes investigative journalism difficult: if anything the open-forum nature of much of the Web makes it easier and more powerful, as any number of Internet Detective examples from 4Chan to MeFi demonstrate. There's nothing stopping that sort of approach from being expanded to bigger questions, and nothing blocking "serious" journalists form taking part, other than their own stubborn old-school egos.

*sigh* This again?

Good journalism costs money because you have to pay talented people to be trained and then to spend all day doing journalism so that they can pay their mortgages and buy food at the supermarket to live on. Newspapers have traditionally provided a way to generate that stream of money and increasingly they don't. If you believe that good journalism is something worthwhile to have in society, the burden is on you to explain how non-newspaper forms of journalism are going to generate this stream.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:33 PM on October 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


Good journalism costs money because you have to pay talented people to be trained and then to spend all day doing journalism so that they can pay their mortgages and buy food at the supermarket to live on.

That's been dead a good long while. Now we have Jenna Bush interviewing Liz Cheney about how great torture is on the Today Show.
posted by mek at 2:35 PM on October 29, 2009


That's been dead a good long while. Now we have Jenna Bush interviewing Liz Cheney about how great torture is on the Today Show.

So good journalism's dead so we might as well give up on it? Or good journalism's dead so we need to find a way to revive it, in which case see my original comment?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:37 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


...that America romantically likes to believe it's famous for.

The quote comes from Der Spiegal.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:38 PM on October 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


The quote comes from Der Spiegal.

Unless it comes from decades ago, it's still wildly off-base. The fourth estate has been bought and sold many times since those days.
posted by rokusan at 2:43 PM on October 29, 2009


"From the standpoint of a student who wants to be a fulltime, employed reporter and find an entry-level job, things aren't so bad right now."

Lies! All lies!

It was hard enough to get a paying job as a reporter before everything went to shit. You had over-educated but inexperienced J-school grads competing with those of us who had heard the "take every internship you can get" lecture when we were toddlers. Back in 2002 or so I was one of more than 100 applicants for a job at a rather shoddy, run-down, weekly newspaper that covered two small suburban town. The pay was something like $24,000 a year. About a year later, when I was at a small daily (receiving similar pay), our recycling bins were full of resumes.

I'd go to conferences sometimes and meet other young journalists who all just wanted a decent job with benefits and pay they could survive on. None of us found such a thing. We got paid in Monopoly money. Some days we'd get called in to work at seven a.m. and not leave until ten p.m. At the smaller operations, you could be at work all night every day of the week -- especially if there was no one else to attend the planning board, zoning board, taxi commission and other hearings. And of course there was no one else.

Nowadays, it's all worse. Just worse. Almost every single person I knew at one particular newspaper was laid off. They went from having a city editor and two assistant city editors to having the managing editor man the city desk. They laid off copyeditors, paginators, designers. They slowly eliminated reporting positions until the newsroom was eerily empty. The old-timers took buyouts. Anyone with an ounce of talent and foresight has had to job-hop for the last five years.

If you want a journalism job, you've got to be willing to kiss a lot of ass, work really hard, and possibly move to another country. Or at least another state.

I swear to God, just thinking about being in a newsroom right now gives me ulcers.

There are no jobs. And if there were, you'd be competing with fantastic reporters who have years of experience, shiny resumes, awesome clip files, and the willingness to move to Milwaukee or Dubai.

Honestly? Who would pay to go to journalism school right now? A crazy person, that's who.

/journalism-rant
posted by brina at 2:44 PM on October 29, 2009 [8 favorites]


If you believe that good journalism is something worthwhile to have in society, the burden is on you to explain how non-newspaper forms of journalism are going to generate this stream.

No, I think we need need to outgrow this newspaperish exceptionalism that treats a printing factory as the only possible money-making system in an economy that's outgrown that.

Or are you really arguing that there's no way to make money on the Internet or on television? You can only make enough money to pay reporters with a newspaper?'

In any medium: make something people want to read. Lots of people will read it. Sell advertising. Make money.

Newspapers are not special snowflakes, here.
posted by rokusan at 2:45 PM on October 29, 2009


In any medium: make something people want to read. Lots of people will read it. Sell advertising. Make money.

I can't believe how many times this argument apparently has to be rehearsed on Metafilter, but:

1. People have never paid what it costs to produce good journalism. Good journalism has happened because the obstacles to publication, in the print era, enabled newspapers to act as a near-unique means for bringing readers to advertisers, and good journalism piggybacked on this process. It was effectively subsidised.
2. In the post-print era, news websites are in no sense a near-unique means for bringing readers to advertisers, so the same situation cannot be exploited in order to produce journalism that costs more than people are willing to pay for.
Therefore...
3. To produce good journalism we either need new mechanisms of funding, including possibly state aid, or we need to somehow change humans so that for the first time in history they are willing to pay what it costs to produce good journalism.

rokusan, your argument only holds water if you really, truly believe that the only things that have value to society are the things that people are willing to pay enough money for on the free market. This is certainly a political opinion one can hold. But it doesn't remotely resemble the world we actually live in, and it's not a world I'd ever want to live in.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:53 PM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


Newspapers are not special snowflakes, here.

There is something unique about a newspaper, to me. My local paper gets delivered to my house 5 days a week. I read it twice a week, Saturdays and Sundays, because that's when I have the time, but I have to take it the other 3 days anyway.

Everything in the delivered paper is available on their website, often there are more details online and updates to the stories, even, should I wish to venture into that particular pile of crap, comments from my fellow readers. But it's not the same, reading it online, as sharing the paper with my family over coffee. I wish some of the reporting was better. I wish they'd fire their sports columnists and hire some of the very talented bloggers who do a far better job of offering color on the trials and tribulations of the local teams. I wish they'd finally stop printing B.C. and put something funny there instead. But I like the medium, I hope it continues to be available for a long time to come and I'd be willing to pay more to make that happen if I have to.
posted by IanMorr at 3:02 PM on October 29, 2009


I live in a place where the metropolitan newspaper publishes front page prayers, pro-business editorials, endorsements of the usual corrupt state senators, and little investigative journalism. I don't blame the journalists; rather I blame the owners and their need to push religious and political agendas. And the readers too for buying the damn thing.
posted by crapmatic at 3:06 PM on October 29, 2009


Good journalism can happen in any medium. There's nothing about the Internet that makes investigative journalism difficult: if anything the open-forum nature of much of the Web makes it easier and more powerful, as any number of Internet Detective examples from 4Chan to MeFi demonstrate.

Did you really just compare a 4Chan "Gotcha!" to serious investigative journalism?

Let me clue you in on something: the Internet does not even begin to encompass a fraction of the information you would need to do a real piece of investigative journalism. Not even close. If you're spending hours a day on the web, it may seem that way. But it isn't so. Serious investigative journalism involves cultivating real-world sources, poring through as-yet-unscanned government documents from 1978 and other tasks that are a little more labor-intensive and less immediately rewarding than a few finely-crafted google searches.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:37 PM on October 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


but doesn't beat around the bush

I would argue that not beating around Bush may be the most recent source of print media's woes.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:14 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Newspapers =/ journalism. TV =/ journalism. Similarly, Internet =/ journalism.
posted by mek at 6:19 PM on October 29, 2009


For every great investigative journalist we had hacks like Judith Miller helping to provide cover for illegal wars.

So sure, we've lost something but let's not be selective in our memories.

I'm excited for the future of journalism on the web, but I certainly don't envy those who are caught in the transfer away from dead tree factories.
posted by bardic at 7:08 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Watergate was a long, long time ago.

There have been a couple of major state level political scandals in the last few years in my state. Things involving bribes and improper influence involving the Speaker of the House, a former Governor and some cabinet level secretaries. They were all initially exposed by newspapers. I just don't see our local TV news spending the time to investigate and report on these complex stories and there is not a local blogger with the clout, reach, or experience to bust these things wide open. Last year the local paper actually hired another reporter to just cover state government.

Newspapers are still the best means around to investigate and report state and local stories like this. I really shudder to think what would still be going on in state politics if it wasn't for the newspaper here.
posted by marxchivist at 7:36 PM on October 29, 2009


I think I've mentioned this here before maybe, but my anecdote:

My nest childhood friend was a newspaper journalist in Houston for a couple of years (which included the time around Hurricane Katrina). He was given a number of awards, including Best Scientific Journalism in the state and Best Investigative Journalism in the state. When he got engaged he quit to become a bartender at the airport because the money was too good to pass up.

If journalism can't pay to keep it's best talent, then yes, it is doomed.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:40 PM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


In any medium: make something people want to read. Lots of people will read it. Sell advertising. Make money.

Rupert Murdoch's doing great with this.
posted by weston at 8:23 PM on October 29, 2009


One other cost of investigative journalism is lawsuits. Even with decent open records laws on the books, every single government agency out there fights every request. I don't see bloggers spending the time and money to fight in court to get local tax rolls or overdue sewer bills into the public eye, but these sorts of things are exactly what newspapers do.

Also, though there haven't been earth-shattering investigations like Watergate lately, good investigative journalism is going on at local and regional newspapers around the country. Let's face it, a lot of government corruption is at the local level, precisely because there is less oversight, and more croney-ism. It may not make a flashy headline on Google news, but I want to know if the mayor of my local burgh is embezzling funds from the fire department, or whatever.

Don't you?
posted by dellsolace at 6:02 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


For every great investigative journalist we had hacks like Judith Miller helping to provide cover for illegal wars.

I don't think anyone, least of all working journalists, would question the idea that newspapers are in a pretty bad position right now, in terms of public reputation, to make the argument for state aid, or for other forms of special protection. There was Judith Miller and her ilk; there's the general dumbing down and celebrity-ization of the news; and there was the long period when newspaper owners rapaciously took huge profits from their publications, replacing much rich local journalism with cookie-cutter AP stories, and generally behaving as if readers didn't matter and newspapers were sources of free money.

But it's essential to realize that in a crucial way this is completely irrelevant. We are talking about what we want to see in the future. It's a logical fallacy to imply that bad behavior by newspapers in the past, or right now, lends more credibility to the web as a source of well-funded, good journalism. The argument that Situation A was a bad one doesn't automatically make Situation B a good one: we may need Situation C. All the Judith Millers in the world don't suddenly give rise to the Magic Internet Journalism-Funding System on which arguments such as rokusan's rely.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:23 AM on October 30, 2009


I can't believe how many times this argument apparently has to be rehearsed on Metafilter, but:

Maybe it's the huffy, dismissive tone you use that fails to gain converts?

I like newspapers, and print in general, but the traditional industry is way past its best-before date. The fact that investigative journalism can work on television (60 Minutes, Frontline, etc) is a good enough example that there's nothing special enough about ink on paper. I can't think of a reason it can't work online, either.

I notice that websites manage to generate millions of dollars for political candidates and causes, and I notice that the collaborative and interactive nature of the web (or "Web 2.0", ugh) manages to connect people and further agendas quite well.

A future web in which we (readers, users) pay to fund investigative efforts doesn't seem so impossible to me. If one is worried about investigative journalism dying, why not dedicate some effort to getting something like that going, rather than cling nostalgically to a dying paper-based business with trucks and printing presses?
posted by rokusan at 12:27 PM on October 30, 2009


Did you really just compare a 4Chan "Gotcha!" to serious investigative journalism?

Of course not. Consider it a proof of (technical collaborative) concept, a hint at how the Internet could indeed support investigative work. Heck, with nothing but smokinggun.com, Wikipedia and Snopes at hand, any random person in his mom's basement can find no shortage of factual errors in any Big Respectable Newspaper. The papers just don't do the quality job that they claim to represent. Maybe they did in the fifties. Maybe.

Right here on MeFi, there's been more than one example of a ragtag group of rebel snarkers debunking a New York Times story, solving a mystery or revealing a fraud that the precious newspaper industry flat out missed, or didn't care to get right.

And that's just some ad hoc, spare time poking around by a bunch of smelly MeFites. Imagine if such an effort had resources and was focused on a big problem, or if the newspaper traditionalists, with all their resources at hand, actually embraced the Internet and their own readers, rather than treated it all like some sort of low-class enemy.
posted by rokusan at 12:32 PM on October 30, 2009


The problem that the random person, mom's basement or not, will be looking at those three sites which probably have a lot of references to newspaper articles. Snopes might reference more books, I think. While I am not saying that newspapers are at the bottom of all of the information, I am getting at the idea that a survey of the top level of sites does not do justice to all of the work done underneath.

Yes, I have seen 4chan do some hilariously funny and fast investigations, but not at the level of uncovering corruption.

As to the television angle, remember that there's a crucial difference — copying someone's text article is a ctrl-c away, and thus you can create a separation between the people paying the cost and where the eyeballs hit.

In television, the advertisers pay for the programs, like 60 Minutes, and they air their ads during that program. With a text-based medium, Pepsi Blue could pay for an investigative story, someone else scrapes it, and then the eyeballs do not land on the ads of the original payers, and instead the work for which they paid is now on a site featuring Coke Zero. That, at least, is the perception.
posted by adipocere at 1:27 PM on October 30, 2009


Heck, with nothing but smokinggun.com, Wikipedia and Snopes at hand, any random person in his mom's basement can find no shortage of factual errors in any Big Respectable Newspaper.

That is true. And it's completely beside the point. Because finding factual errors is not the same as doing an actual investigation. And, to repeat a point that you did not address in your reply:

The Internet does not encompass even a fraction of the information you seem to think it does. It is capable of great things, but I really seriously doubt that it would be much help to you if you needed to find out what someone said at a city council meeting in a mid-sized provincial city in 1978 or, for that matter, if you needed to investigate a crime that took place in a neighborhood filled with poor immigrants, many of whom have a shaky legal status and don't trust authorities and who aren't necessarily in the habit of putting every possible bit of personal information online.

Journalism involves working with slow, undigitized sources, like government archives and not-always-reliable human beings. They don't just fall into line and cough up information the way that Google does. And that's the way it's going to be for the foreseeable future. Given the amount of labor it takes to exploit those sources, you need to hire full-time staff to do investigations. This is not a hobby or a mom's-basement project.

In other words, you really haven't proven your point at all. I will take your arguments more seriously when that random guy in mom's basement builds something up, as opposed to tearing it down.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:18 PM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's the huffy, dismissive tone you use that fails to gain converts?

In case anyone's still reading... ha, yes, point taken and I apologize for that. It's not meant to be huffiness, but exasperation: there is this bizarre imbalance throughout this debate, whereby the "newspapers are past their sell-by date" people seem to consider themselves excused from even beginning to address the question of how good journalism is going to be paid for online, as if their excitement about the atmosphere "creative destruction" that's currently fashionable were somehow enough to make a "how" appear as if by magic. At the risk of sounding huffy, your example of political fundraising is irrelevant — Obama certainly didn't make so much money on the web because he had a really interesting website.

If one is worried about investigative journalism dying, why not dedicate some effort to getting something like that going, rather than cling nostalgically to a dying paper-based business with trucks and printing presses?

Again, this is part of the same reduction of this debate to one of tone and style: are you Part Of The Future, or are you a Crusty Old Dinosaur Who's Just Nostalgic? Far from being nostalgic about a dying business, I specified, upthread, the ways in which this business created a funding mechanism that enabled good journalism to be produced even though this social good has never managed to attract the funding it needs as a market good. In your posts, where the web-era parallel of this mechanism should be, I see nothing but handwaving.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:18 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


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