Newspaper Futures

Posted: January 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Journalism | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

As readers of this blog will know, I am ambivalent about the emerging M.O. of online journalism. I think original reporting available to more people at lower cost is great news. I think editorializing from informed but partisan experts is a good thing in so much as it engages people to be active citizens even as it educates them. I think the trend of taking the link—the ability to connect disparate ideas—and using it as a license to eschew logic and connect anything you please is bad. I think the claim by link-evangelists that their denial of verifiable truth is more intellectually honest than the imperfect, but well-intentioned, search for objectivity that characterizes traditional print is the worst of all.

I feel compelled to summarize the above stances again in light of a recent article by Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic Monthly. Hirschorn makes the case that the current financial crisis will speed up the (he says) inevitable bankruptcies of various print organizations, and takes up the NYT as an example. From a financial statement analysis perspective, Hirschorn is just wrong. The Times has loans that might be a problem in the current credit situation, but hardly enough of them that it would go under. Moreover, his assumption that the actual demise of papers like the Times is the inevitable trajectory we were headed down seems misguided. Indeed, later on the piece, he himself lays out a vision of the future in which it’s the big brands like the NYT that dominate, albeit in a digital form.

“What would a post-print Times look like? Forced to make a Web-based strategy profitable, a reconstructed Web site could start mixing original reportage with Times-endorsed reporting from other outlets with straight-up aggregation. This would allow The Times to continue to impose its live-from-the-Upper-West-Side brand on the world without having to literally cover every inch of it. In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters—now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases—could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form. Times readers might actually end up getting more exposure than they currently do to reporting resources scattered around the globe, and to areas and issues that are difficult to cover in a general-interest publication.
In this scenario, would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting. This combination has allowed the HuffPo to digest the news that matters most to its readers at minimal cost, while it focuses resources in the highest-impact areas. What the HuffPo does not have, at least not yet, is a roster of contributors who can set agendas, conduct in-depth investigations, or break high-level news. But the post-print Times still would.

Though I think Slate is a better example of what really top-notch web journalism should resemble than the HuffPo, this is more or less the vision I’ve been touting for a while. His critique of the upstart media’ ability to do all this by itself I find particularly gratifying,

“Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.”

Some things, Hirschorn is correct to point out, will be lost in that transition, notably the number of journalists the industry can sustain and the comfy salaries with martini lunches. The “post-print Times” he describes would be staffed by a smaller number of scrappier, poorer newshounds than the Times of ten years ago. And with less resources, they should focus on that reporting that only the Times can produce—in other words, they should nix what Hirschorn calls the

“the temporarily profitable lifestyle fluff [that] gradually hollowed out journalism’s brand, by making the newspaper feel disposable. The fluff is more fun to read than the loss-leading reports about starvation in Sudan, but it isn’t the sort of thing you miss when it’s gone.”

Once again, you read it here first.

The best thing about the Hirschhorn piece is that it gets beyond the false argument journalists have been having about objectivity in recent months. Old print hands claim that reasoned verifiable facts can only be reported by people who have no opinions, no stake in what facts turn out to be true. New media ideologues claim that no one knows what’s true so we may as will write the spin that suits us. Each side uses the divide between fact/impartial and opinion/partisan to smear the other intellectually dishonest. For the best insight into this debate, have a look at Jonathan Chait’s piece on the rise of the netroots movement. These would be the die-hard, ideological, fact-rejecting liberal bloggers who criticize Washington print columnists for being in bed with the pols they cover, yet sign themselves up for the same cocktail parties as paid campaign staffers (!) to get access to the principals. Chait is a print hand who thinks (as I do) that the netroots are often hacks, but he has a keen eye for explaining their world. And he acknowledges the space in the middle.

“Other liberal bloggers, sometimes called the “wonkosphere,” advocate liberal ideas but do not directly involve themselves in politics. Most of the popular sites in the wonkosphere are maintained by academics or (generally) young liberal journalists…The quality of these blogs varies immensely, with the best ones offering a level of reporting and analysis far better than typical mainstream media fare.”

As the Hirschorn piece shows us, the wonkosphere is the future mainstream.

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