Are we on track for a golden age of serious journalism?

Prospect Magazine

Are we on track for a golden age of serious journalism?

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Falling sales and profits augur badly for serious news. Two leading US experts ask if an online renaissance is in the making

YES: Steven Johnson

NO: Paul Starr


Dear Paul
6th April 2009

Let’s start with the places where we are likely to agree. First, newspapers have historically supplied civic and public goods that are essential to a healthy democratic culture. Second, newspapers themselves are in a dire financial state, thanks to long-term changes wrought largely by the internet, the (hopefully) short-term economic crisis and, for some papers, the reckless financial decisions of their owners. Whatever the? underlying causes, though, I think you and I will agree that the newspaper business—and thus its editorial product—is going to look fundamentally different five or ten years from now.

The question is whether a new model will emerge to provide the public goods that the newspapers previously supported through their high-margin local monopolies (at least in the US). I think there is good reason to believe that the news system that is currently evolving online will actually be an improvement on the newspaper model that we’ve been living with for the past century.

One way to think about that transformation is to think of the media as an ecosystem. In the way it circulates information today’s media is, in fact, much closer to an ecosystem than the old industrial, centralised models of mass media. The new world is more diverse and interconnected, a system in which information flows more freely. This complexity makes it interesting, but also hard to predict what it will look like in five or ten years.

Instead of starting with the future, I propose that we look to the past. When ecologists research natural ecosystems, they seek out the oldest forests, where nature has had longest to?evolve. They don’t study rainforests by looking at a field cleared two years ago. By analogy, we should examine the most evolved parts of online news.

One such field is reporting about technology itself. This has been growing and diversifying for decades, making it an old-growth forest for internet news. By any measure it is vastly more informative than when I? first started following technology issues, as a college student in the late 1980s. The web doesn’t have some kind of intrinsic aptitude for covering technology; it just has a tendency to cover technology first, because the first people who used the web were more interested in the subject. But that has changed and is continuing to change. The transformation from the desert of 1980s?technology news to the rich diversity of today’s coverage is now happening in all areas of news. It’s here, but like William Gibson’s adage about the future, it’s just not yet evenly distributed.

Let’s take politics as another example. The first presidential election that I followed in an obsessive way was in 1992. Every day the New York Times would have a handful of stories about campaign stops, debates or polls. Every night I would dutifully tune into cable television shows like Crossfire to hear what the punditocracy had to say about the day’s events. I read Newsweek, Time and the New Republic, and scoured the New Yorker for its occasional political pieces. When the presidential debates aired, I’d watch religiously, staying up late to soak up the commentary from the assembled experts.

That was hardly a news desert, to be sure. But compare it to the information available during the 2008 election. Everything from 1992 was still around, but it was part of a vast new forest of news, data, opinion, satire—and perhaps most importantly, direct experience. Websites like Talking Points Memo and Politico did direct reporting. Blogs like Daily Kos provided in-depth reports on individual races that the New York Times would never have the ink to cover. Bloggers like Andrew Sullivan responded to each twist in the news cycle, and new analysts like Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com did polling analysis that blew away anything? on CNN. When the economy imploded I looked to economist bloggers like Brad DeLong, while I watched the debates with a thousand virtual friends. Twittering beside me on the couch. And all this was remixed through the satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, watched via viral clips on the internet as much as on television. You can see the same changing landscape in Britain too, where blogger Guido Fawkes, not a newspaper reporter, leaked the e-mails that caused Gordon Brown’s spin doctor to resign.

What’s more: the ecosystem of political news included information from the candidates. Think about Barack Obama’s speech on race, arguably one of the key events in the campaign. Eight million people watched it on YouTube. Would the networks have aired this speech in its entirety in 1992? Certainly not. It would have been reduced to a one minute-long evening news soundbite. CNN might have aired it live, to 500,000 people. Fox News and MSNBC? They didn’t even exist.

There is no question in my mind that the political news ecosystem of 2008 was far superior to that of 1992. Some would make the?”echo-chamber” argument that the sources I cite are politically partisan. But even that seems suspicious. After all, back then I? read only the New York Times and the Nation. But in 2008, I spent hours reading? the conservative National Review online. It was still “opposition research,” but those right-wing perspectives were now only a?click away.?

Some argue that this new diversity is? parasitic: bloggers are interesting, sure, but if the traditional? news organisations declined, bloggers would have nothing to write? about. This might have been true earlier this decade, but is no longer the case. Imagine how many barrels of ink were ?purchased to print newspaper commentary on Obama’s gaffe? about people “clinging to their guns and religion.” Yet the original? reporting on that quote didn’t come from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal; it ?came from the Huffington Post. Of course, it is possible that big? national newspapers like the Times may ultimately ?thrive in this new environment. But the White House briefing room is ?going to get more crowded. It’s not that? newspapers are going to disappear. They’re just not going to?be the dominant species any more. ?

Coverage of politics during the 2008 campaign was rich for the same reasons that coverage of news on the web is rich: because it’s now old-growth media. The first wave of blogs were tech-focused; then they turned to politics. Web?2.0-style political coverage has had a decade to mature into its? current state. ?Now the same is happening for sports, business,? movies, books, restaurants, and local news—all the staples of the old? newspaper format are proliferating online. There are more ?perspectives, and more depth. And that’s just the ?new growth. It’s only started maturing.?

Yours,
Steven

Dear Steven
10th April 2009

I agree that a new model of news and public controversy is emerging online and that in some respects, particularly the range of opinion it accommodates, the online environment has advantages over the traditional world of print. But the reality is that resources for journalism in the United States, especially at the metropolitan and regional level, are disappearing faster than the new media can create them. You use the metaphor of an “ecosystem,” and a comforting notion it is: new growth springs up as old growth dies. But you are mistaking the forest for some of the trees. Let’s beware of wishful extrapolation. If one area of a country has heavy rains and there is drought elsewhere, I do not infer from the rainy areas that tomorrow the deserts will bloom—at least, not without irrigation. Moreover, the organic metaphor itself is deceptive. The media don’t develop naturally. They develop historically, and the forces that govern their development are, above all, political and economic.

Most societies, even those with a free national press, do not have the abundance of metropolitan media that has historically characterised the US. The press in Britain and France, for example, is far more concentrated at the national level. But in America, from the founding of the republic through the 19th century, government policy subsidised the rise of local newspapers. Those newspapers in turn played an important economic role as an intermediary between sellers­ (advertisers) and buyers. From these profits newspapers were able to cross-subsidise the production of news as a public good; indeed, metropolitan dailies have been the overwhelming source of original news coverage in American cities.

This function has been particularly critical in the US because, in a federal system like America’s, vital public functions are devolved to state and local government. Democracy depends on independent news coverage of all levels of government, especially those directly responsible to the voters. Where the news media are weak—as social science research shows—corruption is far more prevalent. Without an independent press capable of holding local and state government accountable, the basic project of a federal democracy is in jeopardy.

The internet is undermining the ability of the press to cross-subsidise the production of public-service journalism for one reason above all. The metropolitan dailies no longer occupy the strategic position between buyers and sellers they once did; online, there are alternative ways for sellers to reach their markets and for consumers to find out about products and sales. The heightened competition for “eyeballs” in cyberspace also undercuts the ability of the news media to charge for content. The current recession, and in some cases reckless management, have compounded these problems, producing draconian cuts both to editorial staff and the depth of news coverage. Newspapers in Europe and elsewhere are also facing the same dire structural changes as the internet undermines their sources of revenue.

In the US, coverage of state government has dropped sharply. More than 50 full-time reporters used to cover politics in the capital of my own state of New Jersey. The number is now 15. Many stories do not get reported at all. Contrary to your account, as newspapers retrench there is no compensating tendency for online news to fill the gap. Some news websites are developing in states and cities elsewhere in the country, but they almost all operate on a nonprofit basis, and at a fraction of the scale of the great American daily papers.

There are really three separate problems here: the production of professionally reported news; the production of an engaged public; and the production of effective political accountability. While the internet unquestionably offers a diversity of opinion and access to new sources, it is not sustaining general-interest professional journalism at its previous levels. Niche audiences are being served. At the national level, even as the number of reporters for the general news media has declined, many journalists have found jobs in high-priced publications serving particular industries. The oil industry, I am certain, will get good information about developments in Washington. But whether the public at large will get equally good information about the political influence of the oil industry is more doubtful. And this privatisation of news will probably be even greater at the state and local level.

Philanthropy may be able to support investigative reporting and partially remedy this problem. But the second problem—the creation of an engaged public—is even more difficult. Newspapers, which used to be read by half the people of a city, helped to create a self-aware urban public. Those who buy a paper may be chiefly interested in the sports section or the crossword puzzle, but still glance at the front pages, learning something about their city and the world. Online, people interested in sports or puzzles go directly to sites with those features, avoiding exposure to news and controversy about their community. The incidental learning of a bundled metropolitan paper disappears.

The impact of this change is likely to vary according to income, education, and level of political interest. The more affluent, better educated, and politically involved have the resources and motivations to search out information online, but many others do not. What is at stake here is the further development of an information-stratified society. The US has already seen a tremendous increase in class inequality in recent decades, and anyone concerned about justice and the future of democracy ought to be concerned about other developments which threaten to aggravate those tendencies.

This then relates to the third problem—the creation of effective political accountability. The ability of the news media to serve as a check on government doesn’t just depend on laws protecting free speech, but also on the economic strength of the press. Powerful interests can intimidate financially weak organisations.

It would be foolish to predict whether the internet will ultimately be able to sustain the type of news reporting for the general public that newspapers have historically produced. But it would be even more foolish to ignore the evidence of what is happening today, and to rely on a happy vision of inexorable progress brought on by the internet. The danger of that blithe indifference to unpleasant realities is that it may lull us into inaction. Both government policy and philanthropy now need to be spurred to support independent journalism in new ways. I hope you’ll come around to recognising that need.

Paul Starr

Dear Paul
16th April 2009

It’s true that I am optimistic about the long-term possibilities for news, but the last thing I want to do is encourage “inaction.” The whole point of my argument is to suggest an optimistic future and inspire people to build it. You want action to preserve a newspaper model that has served us well for a century. I think we can build something better.

You talk about the long-term forces arrayed against the newspaper business. They are real. But you gloss over the many countervailing forces—political, economic and technological—that benefit the news itself, and the civic culture that surrounds it. We now see vast new efficiencies in distribution, thanks to the switch from print to digital. Unprecedented opportunities exist for participation in the creation, curation and discussion of news. Access to government data is easier, thanks in part to transparency initiatives like those of the Obama administration. Meanwhile new websites—including one I have set up, called Outside.in—allow citizens to address “hyper local” issues at the scale of city blocks and neighbourhoods that city newspapers could never reach. All this comes with the ability to aggregate many different voices into a single site, without paying the costs for creating that content. And don’t forget the $10bn in local advertising dollars coming online in the next five years.

But let’s not talk about the long-term trends. Let’s talk about what it’s like in my home town, Brooklyn, right now. You talk about the decline in state government reporting in New Jersey. For the past three years, the dominant civic issue in Brooklyn has been a controversy over the Atlantic Yards, a big urban redevelopment project. On Outside.in the page for the Atlantic Yards brings together news, reporting, commentary and chatter. There are 30 stories from the past five days. The New York Times print edition ran exactly one story mentioning it in the past month.

How much richer will coverage of an important civic issue like Atlantic Yards be in five years? As you say, it’s risky to guess, so let’s imagine a future based entirely on existing enterprises and websites. Here’s what I think it will look like. Big bloggers, like the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner, will break stories, comment on events, and even make money. Data platforms like Everyblock will make people aware of new filings by property developers. Muckrakers with a passion—like the feisty Atlantic Yards Report blog—will show up at every hearing with tough questions, and post annotated transcripts. Local amateurs will scour public documents for revealing details, while parents at hearings will blog about the impact on specific schools in the shadow of the project. And then sites like Outside.in will circulate their remarks to readers who live in that school zone, while new charitable organisations like Spot.us will fund investigative articles into the background of the developers. If they are smart, New York newspapers like the Times and the Post will draw upon this coverage, share it with their readership, use it to sell local ads, and sometimes put one of their trained reporters to develop new stories. The latter will, in turn, add immense value to the information chain, and the whole cycle will start over again.

Yes, at the end of that process, there will be fewer official newspaper journalists covering events like the Atlantic Yards. But will there be a corresponding decline in civic engagement? I doubt it. You talk about the old newspaper system increasing engagement in part because people stumbled through the front page on their way to the comics. I don’t even accept that premise. I suspect that the web will prove to be far more serendipitous than newsprint. But even if it isn’t, which society seems more civic-minded to you? One where the news is controlled by a tiny minority and people get their civic interactions as a drive-by read on the way to the sports section? Or one where thousands of ordinary people actively participate in the creation of the news itself?

Steven

Dear Steven
17th April 2009

Let’s take a closer look at your business, Outside.in, and see whether it is a substitute for professional journalism. I see that when you launched Outside.in in October 2006, you used the same Atlantic Yards example. It’s two-and-a-half years later, and I’m sure by now you must have a second. But anyone looking around your site will see that investigative reporting is not what it does. From what I could tell, it doesn’t do any reporting of its own. It aggregates what appears elsewhere. There seems to be no standard of relevance or significance. And if what appears elsewhere is garbage, it helps to spread that garbage because, by its nature, an automated news site lacks the one thing that every good editor has­—a crap detector.

You refer to a blog called the Atlantic Yards Report as a key source for Outside.in’s Brooklyn news. I checked with the Report’s editor, Norman Oder. Here’s what he said in response to a question about whether Outside.in did any reporting or exercised any editorial selection: “Outside.in doesn’t ‘cover’ Atlantic Yards, and it has virtually no impact, to my mind, on the local discussion. It merely aggregates a plethora of news and blog coverage, piggybacking notably on my blog and the NoLandGrab.org portal.” Of course, you don’t pay Oder or anyone else for use of their work. That may be a good business model. Whether it’s a model for solving the problems of journalism is another story.

Let’s also take a closer look at the rhetoric you’ve been using to cast yourself as the bold defender of innovation. You say that I “want to take action to preserve a newspaper model.” But, as I made clear in a recent article in the New Republic, “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers,” we have to look toward new forms of journalism adapted to the demands of a digital environment, taking full use of its advantages. The trouble is that the kind of innovation you are promoting doesn’t respond effectively to the threefold problem that I’ve raised: financing public-service journalism, engaging the public, and producing political accountability.

Sites like yours that scrape news, commentary—and profits—off the web depend entirely on someone else to pay for original reporting. Some bloggers may break an occasional news story, but to pretend they have the capacities of a large metropolitan paper is disingenuous. A news-scraping site can extend the audience for the material it gathers, but if there’s any engaging of the public, it’s because someone else is doing it. Engaging the public requires making sense of events, not just reproducing isolated bits of information (and misinformation).

Finally, creating effective political accountability requires a countervailing power in the press that a news-scraping site is not going to have. When I spoke of newspapers retrenching, and the inability of online news to fill the gap, I was referring to coverage of state government in New Jersey. It happens to be true, and it’s also true of coverage of government in other states as well. Nothing that you have said addresses this decline in reporting and its implications for political accountability, and your site is certainly no solution—you can’t aggregate stories that aren’t being written. Solving that problem is going to demand new investments in journalism by nonprofit organisations, new business models that finance reporting, and new public policies that allow news organisations to capture more of the revenue from the public good they produce. And while we’re on the subject of revenue, how about paying Norman Oder and others for the work that you’ve been touting as if it were your own site’s contribution to public debate?

Paul

Dear Paul
17th April 2009

Of course, Outside.in doesn’t do original reporting. I pointed to the Atlantic Yards to show the volume of information already created about a civic issue in Brooklyn. I wasn’t taking credit for that content.

What I find promising on that page, and on thousands of others across the country, is that information is being created and culled from a diverse range of sources, yet is scattered across hundreds of different sites. While much of it is explicitly about hyperlocal issues—real estate, schools or crime—it’s often hard to find news that’s geographically close to you. This is the part of the ecosystem where Outside.in plays a productive role. We organise and amplify those voices. We help newspapers connect to bloggers, and help bloggers to get their stories onto “old media” sites. Eventually, we’ll help businesses to run geographically-targeted ads. And when we do, if Norman Oder at Atlantic Yards Report wants to run our ads on his pages, we’ll be delighted to write him a cheque every month. Our business succeeds if newspapers are profitable, and if bloggers quit their day jobs.

Part of our disagreement here stems, I think, from the fact that we’re emphasising different kinds of civic engagement. There are larger issues—like whether a city’s governor is getting kickbacks from developers. And then there are millions of local issues: a proposal to close a bike lane, or a high school principal whom parents want replaced. The first has been cultivated by newspapers for a hundred years, while the second is underserved. You do need traditional reporting skills for the macro issues, but on the hyperlocal level the true experts are people on the streets.

I think we both agree that the future for this second type of news is good. The question is whether the first can be sustained at the level we have come to expect. I think it can, but I agree it’s going to take some work. We have more participation, cheaper distribution and the end of local information monopolies. Yes, we might have fewer long-form investigative journalists, but we’ll also have a vast increase in watchdog “eyes on the street,” to use a phrase from urban sociologist Jane Jacobs. Surely we should be able to take those ingredients and fashion a more effective check on institutional power? Even with newspapers in crisis, we see unprecedented innovation and exciting new models for news creation. Your argument does a great job describing what we risk losing with the end of the old newspaper model. I’d love to hear what you think we should create to replace it.

Steven

Dear Steven
18th April 2009

I’m afraid I don’t see the positive contribution of sites that scrape material off the internet, indiscriminately mixing press releases and genuine reporting, without any standards of significance or trustworthiness. At best, this is irrelevant to the problem of sustaining independent journalism, civic engagement and political accountability; at worst, by skimming off some of the profits, automated news sites aggravate the financial problems of the press. Until recently, I hadn’t taken seriously the idea that aggregators were violating copyright, but now I see that the courts should make it clear that the uncompensated, systematic and concentrated aggregation of other people’s work without added editorial value is not “fair use.” A court decision along those lines would force aggregators to pay for their own reporters and editors, to pay for other content, or go out of business. And that is one means by which policy could channel profits from aggregation back into news.

As I’ve suggested, nonprofit organisations and philanthropy are going to have to play a new role financing investigative and other kinds of reporting. Meanwhile a variety of regulatory policies could strengthen local news. Government could look more favourably on mergers, or joint operation, between newspapers and broadcasters, so long as they are willing to maintain certain levels of news coverage. It could create new licences to broadcast to mobile phones, contingent on meeting the same kind of public-service criteria, or create new corporate forms allowing media to draw on both for-profit and nonprofit financing.

Online there is a great deal of experimentation in real journalism. Much of this is taking shape in collaborative networks, not traditional news organisations. As a result stories are often broken into small segments and released as they accumulate, instead of being held and developed into a lengthy narrative. All of this fits the peculiar demands of the online environment, and private donors and public policy should support such innovation online, rather than trying to sustain newspapers in their traditional form.

Independent, professional journalism can survive and grow if policy and nonprofit institutions find creative ways to support it. I am doubtful, however, that it can flourish solely through market forces and new technology, though journalists cannot ignore either of those. Yet even if independent journalism successfully adapts, the new media environment will probably lead to a wider gap between the small minority who take an intense interest in public life, and the considerably larger number who drop out of the public sphere altogether, learning little and caring less about politics. This is an old problem that has come back in a new form. The future of democracy depends on whether we can figure out how to address it.

Paul

Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect‘s blog

Correction: We have amended the reference in the fifth paragraph of Paul Starr’s first letter to the number of reporters covering politics in New Jersey, to make it clear that he was referring to the number of journalists working in the state capital rather than in the state as a whole. We regret the error.



Author

Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson's new book The Invention of Air will be published by Penguin in the autumn. Paul Starr is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, and co-editor of The American Prospect 


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