Falling sales and profits throughout the mainstream media seem to be sounding a death knoll for an entire medium and set of attitudes. It seems clear that serious news reporting as the 20th century knew it—expert, measured, investigative and able to hold figures in the public eye to account—is in a profound crisis, with every month bringing fresh redundancies and collapses in the local and national print media. But, against many commentators’ dire predictions, could a renaissance of the best values of such reporting in fact be occurring already online?
For our cover story this month, we have an expert debate on this question. On one side is Steven Johnson, the author, tech commentator and founder of the online service outside.in, who makes the case that the internet already offers an unrivalled news ecosystem with an unprecedented ability to cover current affairs in detail, to engage with local issues and to subject the actions of politicians and businesses to comprehensive public scrutiny. On the other side is Paul Starr, professor of public affairs at Princeton and co-editor of The American Prospect, who argues that resources for journalism are disappearing faster than the new media can create them, and that online journalism faces three enormous challenges: financing professionally reported news, creating an engaged public, and producing genuine political accountability. While there is already much that is good online, Starr says, the future of the news cannot be left to technology and market forces alone, and there is now a real need for private donors and public policy to support journalism, albeit not necessarily in its traditional form.
Who makes the stronger case? Is the loss of the news reporting model of the 20th century potentially an irreplaceable one; or are we witnessing the birth of a new but equally robust engagement with current affairs? Weigh in with your own views below.