Long live the news

I love newspapers so much I work at one. It gives me no pleasure — and causes considerable anxiety — to wake up each morning and hear about layoffs, losses, bankruptcies, and so on in the industry. Things are looking so bad it is starting to make my previous ambition to be an academic look like a smart career move. In short, I stand to lose a lot if this business craters and my employers stop employing me. 

But does society have anything to lose if newspapers disappear? That is, will democracy suffer if people are no longer able to get their news from ink printed on a flattened tree? I highly doubt it. 

Smart people believe otherwise. There are two main arguments in favour of the claim that the loss of newspapers would be detrimental to the virtues of civility, engagement, and edification that the newspaper encourages. The first is the idea that only newspapers put the resources into the sorts of thoughtful, investigative, or otherwise expensive reporting that our public conversation relies on. On this view, the internet is a parasite on “real” journalism, and without it, the conversation will wither and die. Here’s Jon Kay making this case. 

The second argument is directed at the internet itself. It claims that various characteristics of online conversation make it ill-suited for democratic dialogue. By allowing us to filter what we read, by giving us the “Daily Me,” we end up talking amongst only like-minded ideologues. The result is a society more partisan and polarized than is healthy. Cass Sunstein has been making this argument for a while. 

I actually think there is very little to either of these arguments. Here’s my response to  Sunstein.

As for Jon Kay’s argument that there will be no one around to pay for the serious reporting, I’m skeptical. New business models are emerging, like the non-profit Pro Publica, hybrid organisations like Politico (which is evolving into a Washington bureau for small papers), to various forms of crowdfunded journalism. 

Some of these are more viable than others, but the point is that what is happening to the media ecosystem is evolution, not armageddon. John Gapper of the FT gets it exactly right:

I am sure US citizens would lose something if fewer papers or wire services covered national affairs. But would it really be insufficient for society if five or six organisations (including Reuters and Bloomberg) competed to cover, for example, the Federal Reserve? I doubt it.

The question for national and international reporting is not whether city papers survive but whether news organisations such as The New York Times do. Clearly, if they did not, and blogs were left alone to provide coverage of Washington and Iraq, there would be a problem.

Myown sense is that the industry is taking on a barbell shape: we’re going to have a number of large national or international branded news sources (CNN, WSJ, NYT) that will handle the big stuff, while medium-sized city papers will shrink or disappear entirely, supplanted by community papers and metro-blogs. 

Meanwhile, the last thing the industry needs is a bailout. And it would be outrageous for the US government to resurrect the Federal Writers Project.

The newspaper may be dead, maybe there’s life in the old medium yet. A lot of journalists might have to find some other way of baking their bread. But the news will live on, and democracy will continue to flourish.