Thursday, January 01, 2009

Newspapers, 1690-2009?

OK, I have a personal stake here, because the newspaper I work for may fold in a few weeks. But this may be the year that a number of medium-size and larger cities lose their dailies, at least in the form of a paper-and-ink product delivered to the customers' front door.

Name your reason for the demise of the daily -- Craigslist surely accelerated a trend that was well under way -- but there are plenty of reasons to be scared scatless when general-interest newspapers disappear.

This op-ed from The Wall Street Journal sums up a lot about the challenges "citizen journalists" trying to cover local events will face, at least initially. Over at The Corner, Mark Krikorian has echoed these thoughts.

There may be people who are passionate enough about local affairs (and who have lots of time on their hands) and are perfectly willing and capable of attending public hearings and reporting what happens.

But before bloggers or other online-only media can replace newspapers, they'll have to build reputations that inspire respect and even fear from public officials and corporate titans. Like it or not, there are advantages to working for organizations that can buy ink by the barrel. Amateurs won't have the same access to officials that professional journalists (even free-lancers working for established media organizations) do. An institution with the capacity of reaching several hundred thousand people a day in a concentrated market keep people in the public sphere minding their p's and q's. At least they'll return a reporter's phone call if they don't want to see their name on the front page in an unfavorable light when it's justified.

But bloggers may never have that influence. What mayor or council member or agency employee in his right mind would respond to a call or a question or an e-mail from an amateur? And what outlet would a whistleblower trust to break a story of corruption or malfeasance or other official misdeeds?

I'll concede that a local blogger who has built up credibility through his own efforts -- via celebrity or reputation or personal wealth -- may be able to create an institution that replaces the journalistic functions of the current daily newspaper. And perhaps that outlet can build a professional operation, even if it has a staff of one.

But any such outfits need financial support to be anything other than hobbies for part-timers with narrow interests. And as of now, I've not heard of a business model that makes an online news organization sustainable at the local level, even in a city the size of Denver.

I honestly hope that such business models are forthcoming. Heck, I'd be eager to participate in a startup like that. Because I know that a vacuum in news coverage will be toxic to the health of our political system.


Col. Hogan said...

Print newspapers showed the beginnings of their bankruptcy for me when they (in large measure) gave up let-the-chips-fall-where-they-will investigative journalism. Virtually every story I read comes from a press release, and its content is almost never challenged--or in the case of GW Bush, is always reflexively challenged.

When the President says he must use taxpayer money to save an industry, I never read a reasoned rebuttal with credentialed sources, I read the outraged blathering of agenda-driven ideologues who represent the industry. Or the political opposition.

Has no journalist ever taken Economics 101?

I've refused to purchase the LA Times for decades because of their leftist bias--as have many others, it seems. I still buy the OC Register on Sundays, even though I don't live there anymore. I don't know of any other newspaper that have a rationally readable editorial page. LVRJ might be good, but no one sells it around here that I know of.

I too, hate to see the ink go away, but in large part, I think they brought it on themselves in their attempts to cut costs and their failure to remain objective (or at least, to be upfront about their bias).

Rick said...


Thanks for the comment.

I worked at the LVRJ not too many years ago and even after leaving I've continued to appreciate the often fearless attitude by John Kerr and the crew.

Don't get me started about the LA Times. My familiarity with it only goes back a couple of decades, and I've pretty much ignored it since leaving SoCal for good in 2005. But all I'll say is that during that period the Times often acted as if local government in LA didn't exist. The paper has been relentless in its refusal to cover city politics in any substantive way.

The paper treated Sacramento and Washington with more interest than its own back yard.

I don't even mind leftist bias too much if the reporting actually tries to get beyond the press releases, as you say, and ask questions about the implications of public policies.

The Wine Commonsewer said...

At least they'll return a reporter's phone call if they don't want to see their name on the front page in an unfavorable light when it's justified.

Good point and that is exactly what happened when Bernstein (at your old home paper the PE) wrote a snide column about the Riv County Jail being without heat for two weeks when the temps were in the 20's.

OTOH, there are bloggers who have that kind of sway.

Speaking of media going to hell in a handbasket, I tried to tune in the Rose Parade for the kids and Channel Two (CBS Los Angeles) was running a half hour paid infomercial for Time Life Books at 9:00 AM on New Years Day.

Now THAT was a reality check.

The Wine Commonsewer said...

Ironically, we still get the paper at the front gate. Mrs TWC is an internet news junkie, but she has to have the newspaper to look at.

The way I think its going is the way our local rag, the PE has gone. You subscribe to the paper and the entire paper is available online.

BTW, Ben Boychuk had a good piece on making newspapers competitive recently.

Rick said...

Mike, if you're thinking about the RedBlueAmerica column Ben co-authors with Joel Mathis, then yes, I saw it and largely agreed with Ben. (No surprise there!)

Ben's right that the media needs a new business model. And one will emerge. What I worry about is whether the new business model will support enough journalism that provides genuine oversight of public institutions to keep the gummint in line.

Guess we're entering that part of the experiment right now.