As a result of the financial pressures that all papers face, my local newspaper, the Plain Dealer has adopted the cost-saving strategy of cutting back on national and international coverage and op-eds, focusing more on local news and sports. The paper is now a lot thinner with the sports section now the largest, and sports news often dominates even the front page.
Is this a bad thing? Some time ago I would have said yes, especially since I rarely read anything in the sports section beyond the first page. It would have signified the further dumbing down of news. But now I am not sure. The coverage of local news seems to have got better and more interesting, and many people do care passionately about sports and can’t seem to get enough of it, so the paper is now perhaps finding a niche. The paper’s regular stable of local and syndicated op-ed columnists is unbelievably vapid so the reduction assigned to them is not something I mourn. In fact, I hardly ever read them, unless they publish the occasional new voice.
But are these kinds of changes sufficient to save newspapers? If not, what can they do to survive?
It is almost certain that newspapers will be forced to go exclusively to the web. The hardcopy model is simply too wasteful of resources to justify continuing it, even if it were financially viable. In doing so, they will save a lot of money on the production costs of newsprint, ink, and gas and other distribution costs, although this will also result in many people losing their jobs.
But newspapers cannot simply transfer the existing paper into a web form. They will also have to make other drastic changes to survive. It seems likely that they will have to transform to a much leaner format, using reporters only for hard news, leaving the soft features to the many other outlets that cater to those needs. Newspapers will also have to develop news niches, rather than trying to provide something for every member of the family, from children to retirees.
Newspapers may depend more on free-lancers and ‘citizen journalists’, people who see their role as seeking and giving the news organizations information to work on. Maybe newspapers will also shift to a not-for-profit model like public radio and TV that manages to provide news of sufficient quality that people are willing to subscribe or donate money to keep it going. By not having to meet the insatiable demands for increased profits, they will be more able to maintain a state of equilibrium.
News gathering organizations can survive in an online journalism format. There are already some models in place, like the excellent Talking Points Memo and the not-so-good Politico. They do a mix of original news reporting along with analysis. TPM has also depended on citizen journalists, regular readers that it deploys to either read through large document releases for information or to get information scattered all over the country that it then pieces together to see patterns. The latter method was what enabled them to break the story about the politicization of the US Attorney’s office by the Bush administration
But most online news organizations still depend for their raw material on traditional reporters doing traditional work for traditional organizations. If newspapers disappear altogether, where would we get the basic news? TV and radio may be able to partially fill that void, except that cable news has shown itself to be pathetic, devoting most of its time to pointless blathering, hyping, and scaremongering. But I do not think there is cause for panic. Wherever there is a need and a niche, people will fill it. When it comes to politics, there are enough people who care passionately enough about it that they will do the work that is necessary. In fact, we might actually get better reporting because only those who really care about getting at the truth will be willing to get into the news business, so will have real news reporters rather than the current glut of news personalities.
We will probably have fewer reporters covering formal staged events like press conferences, official trips by the president, etc. Those things rarely generate any actual news but they cost a lot in that they require reporters to just hang around and follow dignitaries on a permanent basis. Reporters might shift to doing things that are cheaper but more likely to produce real news, like carefully reading official reports and statements.
Newspaper reporters have a valuable role to play in a democracy. Trained investigative reporters who can get information, sift through it to get at the kernels of truth, and present that in an understandable form to the public are essential, though in practice their performance in the US has been pretty mediocre. I would prefer to see a system where reporters are able to do a better job than one in which they are eliminated. But the delivery method is not what is important. What is important is that whatever new model of journalism emerges, it breaks free of the current incestuous relationship between news organizations, politicians, and big business, each supporting the interests of the other, while the interests of the general public gets ignored.
The losers in this shift will be those people who do not have internet access, who will be totally dependent on TV and radio for their news.
POST SCRIPT: Alternative news sources
Once you shift to the internet for your news, it becomes imperative that people be able to descriminate between good sources and unreliable sources of news. Paul Craig Roberts gives some recommendations for diversifying your news sources that I largely agree with.
People who have access to television services that provide English language foreign broadcasts, such as Iran’s Press TV, Russia Today, or Al Jazeera, can get get [sic] news and insights from those parts of the world demonized by the US media. [You can get many world TV and radio news services for free by downloading Livestation.]
The BBC World Service still reports facts while covering itself by providing the views of the US, UK, and Israeli governments.
Both the Asia Times and Israeli newspapers, such as Haaretz can be read online in English. There are other such newspapers, and all of them provide information that Americans will never see in their own media. Any American newspaper that was as truthful about the Israeli government as Haaretz would be closed down.
The only US print source with which I am familiar in which some honest reporting can be found on a regular basis is the McClatchy papers.
Whatever model emerges, we all have to become more connoisseurs of a wide range of news and analysis, rather that depend on just one or two sources.