JONATHAN COHN MARCH 17, 2011
Articles on the future of journalism generally fall into one of two categories. You have the articles that fret about the changing economics of journalism and the ways online communication are destroying the public discourse. Then you have the articles that celebrate these same changes. The Atlantic’s James Fallows has written an article that effectively makes both points--and, along the way, explains that these same conversations have been taking place for a very long time. The media is always changing--sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, sometimes for better and for worse at the very same time.
I think Fallows captures the nuances perfectly, as he usually does. He's right to marvel at the way the internet has made information from all over the world more available. Today I can read the New York Times from anywhere on the planet; the information it brings is more current than ever. When I want expertise about a major issue, I can get it directly from the experts. When I want on-the-ground reports from a developing story, I can get them from people who are, in fact, on the ground.
And yet Fallows is right to note that we're losing something, too. The likes of Craiglist and ESPN.com have stolen the revenue that once subsidized serious news coverage. The ability to tailor content to reader interests, with mind-blowing accuracy and speed, has effectively reduced the ability of elites to force serious news upon their audiences. When you had only two or three sources of information, you had to sit through the top stories or flip past the international news in order to get the movie reviews.
Editors and producers picked that content and you don't have to think their judgment was infallible to think that, on balance, their decisions elevated the public discourse. Now, thanks to RSS feeds, real-time traffic meters, and such other innovations, everybody can customize his or her own news--diminishing the role of elites and rewarding content providers like Gawker that proudly produce only what’s interesting, not what’s important.
Of course, Fallows is not the first to point out this shift. But Matthew Yglesias, a regular contrarian on these issues, suggests the shift will impose a certain discipline on journalists:
the point of writing on worthy topics is presumably to get people to read stories on worthy topics. In the print world, I think people got too complacent about the idea of reporting out a worthy story, plopping it on page A3, and forgetting about it. Was anyone actually reading that story? It’s not clear to me that they were. On the web if you want people to read worthy journalism it’s made clear that this is actually a two-step process. First you have to produce the worthy content, and then you have to get someone to read the worthy content. That’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge those of us interested in writing on subjects we think are important ought to welcome and attempt to meet.
As a general rule, clearly, Yglesias is right: The challenge of journalism has always been figuring out ways to make worthy content interesting. Even at a self-consciously serious magazine like TNR, we spend a lot of time thinking about ways to frame boring policy stories as provocative arguments or engaging narratives. (Whether we succeed, I realize, is a matter of opinion.) Then we spend a lot of time coming up with art, and headlines, that will draw attention to these articles--not to mention high-traffic gimmicks that will bring extra readers to our website.
Still, as Ezra Klein notes, that proverbial story on page A3 really did have a lot of value, even if its readership was small. Sometimes you write for everybody. But sometimes you write for a very narrow audience, which will take what you write very seriously:
Stories about payment fraud in Medicare will never dominate “most popular” lists. But so long as they’re in a publication that regulators and hospitals fear, they can have an impact -- even if the vast majority of the paper’s readers never notice them. The fact that those readers could notice them is enough to prod the relevant parties into acting.
Yup. Keep in mind, too, that watchdog journalism tends to be very labor-intensive. It’s not just that reporters need time to research every item or article. It’s that reporters need to write a lot of articles to produce one that will have an impact. If you’re not following a beat on a regular basis--if you're not staying in constant touch with sources, not reading every new release as it comes out--you’re likely to miss the story that’s worth following.
I don’t worry so much about this on the national level, where non-profits are already stepping up to fill in some of the gaps left behind by shrinking newsrooms. An example is Kaiser Health News, where I’m a columnist and which provides wall-to-wall (er, desktop-to-desktop) coverage of health care policy. The internet also gives more people access to specialized publications or blogs, like The Health Care Blog, that provide the sorts of insight only insiders gained before.
I do worry, a lot, about the future of local news, in part because what’s happening in my own community. The Ann Arbor News went out of business in 2009 and its would-be replacement, AnnArbor.com, just laid off reporters. The University of Michigan is the city’s largest landowner and employer, but the site has no journalist that covers it exclusively, making this a company town with nobody on the company beat.
Communities around the country face the same problem, as local dailies shutter. And, in many of those communities, substitutes exist. Locally, for example, we have alternative publications like the Ann Arbor Observer and the Ann Arbor Chronicle, plus the student journalists at the Michigan Daily. But the surest way to nurture these publications is to make the case, plainly and clearly, that they are necessary.
For more on this subject, by the way, I highly recommend the essay Paul Starr wrote for TNR in 2009.