From Walter Cronkite to Tiger Beatdown

When you get four old white guys talking about journalism (45 may make me the baby of this quartet), you usually get re-runs of The Front Page and reminiscing about what a great paper the St. Louis Post-Dispatch used to be. What strikes me about the four posts here is the shared assumption that the near future of journalism will be quite unlike the recent past, for better or worse or, likely, both.

This is a big change from similar conversations of just a year ago, when “saving” newspapers was the assumed spine of most such discussions. Now, even reactionaries like David Simon and Steve Brill are floating proposals that would, if enacted, wreck the old social bargains on which newspapers have been based. (Steve Yelvington has an

amusing and succinct precis
of Simon’s thesis; Brill’s seems to be that if everyone would just start crippling the web, the print product wouldn’t look quite so awful by comparison.)

There’s much to be said in a world where the debate is about how do deal with massive change, rather than whether to allow it, but for my first response post, I’d like to take on one additional change driving the altered logic of the various publics, one I didn’t mention in the lead essay: demographics.

One of the big changes in the new ecosystem is that public writing, whether news or opinion, is increasingly less dominated by people like me. I’m a straight, white, male baby-boomer, a chardonnay-swilling East Coast liberal, and a paid-up member of the chattering classes. (If it sucks, I’m it.) The American media landscape is now less created by me and my kind, for me and my kind, than at any time in history, a change that is not only likely to continue but accelerate.

I recently re-read George W. S. Trow’s elegy for the American mainstream, Within the Context of No Context, and what struck me was how stunned he seemed that new freedoms he clearly loved — this was a man who knew his way around Studio 54 — seemed to have upended the old world he also loved, the world of the WASPy men who were entrusted with the management of the main stream of American attention. Freedom for Trow, patrician but also gay, to be able to live his life as he wanted was corrosive of the assumed consensus of American life as it had existed for decades.

Something similar is happening today. We live in a world where Casey Gane-McCalla’s work at Jack

and Jill Politics
is as accessible as the Washington Post (more, counting registration), where Sady Doyle’s writings about pop culture on Tiger Beatdown provide an antidote to Entertainment Tonight, imbibable by anyone willing to take the red pill. This is far from the world of Walter Cronkite, the world to which we are saying goodbye.

This is not to say that Cronkite was himself the problem; he was my hero when I was growing up, and a man remarkably willing to speak unpleasant truths. But he too operated in a world of assumed consensus, a world where, at 6 pm, the full range of choice about televised news came down to which of the three white men would present the news in English. That world, comforting as it was to people who look like me, masked the actual diversity of the American experience.

(It was comforting to me and mine in part because it masked that diversity.)

And that mask is gone.

So at least part of the story of disassembling the large, stable publics held together by 20th century news media is the undoing of economics of scale that meant large publics were the most valuable ones, while reaching smaller, more geographically dispersed publics was usually too expensive. This doesn’t mean that the large media outlets won’t continue to have large audiences, just that they’ve got a lot of competition from outside the world of Trow, and of Cronkite, and of me.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Clay Shirky argues that the old models of journalism are broken primarily because in today’s online environment, self-created publics can parse the news however they like. The biggest failure of journalism in the online age is the failure to reproduce the front page — the news that everyone saw together and first. Today, individuals who want specialized or even personalized news can get it instantly. Readership has become impossible to control.

    In this massive upheaval, one thing that may be at risk is the provision of “serious” journalism — news stories about the city council, or about events on the other side of the globe. These stories aren’t being subsidized anymore, as they had been in the past, by getting bundled in with coupons and stories about sports. To provide serious journalism, new forms of patronage may be necessary, and Shirky’s essay concludes with a brief look at some models that may work. Yet no upheaval of this magnitude is really predictable, and the future will probably surprise us all.

Response Essays

  • In his response essay, Philip Meyer argues that while newspapers may be in financial trouble, journalism is on the move. In particular, citizen journalism, done by individuals who may have other careers or life paths outside of full-time journalism, is a key trend for the future. Certification for these journalists — whether through reputation metrics or through a formal certification process — will become increasingly important. Evidence-based journalism, specialty niche journalism, and journalism done through philanthropic foundations are some of the other key trends that are accompanying the decline of the generalist newspapers that dominated the twentieth century. Evidence-based journalism is more open to ordinary citizens, who may not have the contacts of traditional newspaper reporters. Niche journalism had a hard time finding an outlet in the old days. And, although the prospect may be unsettling, philanthropy is increasingly an important source of funding for these projects.

  • Paul Starr agrees with much of Clay Shirky’s lead essay, but he is not optimistic about the power of the public to self-organize. He argues that law, politics, and the unequal fortunes of people in society will all influence the process, and that this means that if we want responsible public-service journalism, we will likely have to subsidize it in a viewpoint- and platform-neutral manner, perhaps with tax exemptions.

  • Steve Yelvington argues that much of the hype about the death of the newspaper business is simply the product of journalistic myopia, in two different forms: First, the news business as a whole made a series of bad business decisions that left it ill-prepared for the information age. And second, the effects of these decisions are all too apparent to reporters, who see them up close in their professional lives. Yet let’s be skeptical of the claim that the newspaper is dying, he says: We are in the middle of a very serious recession, and many other industries are also suffering. No one, however, suggests that we will stop banking, say, or driving cars. Tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, and laws forbidding hyperlinks to copyrighted content are not only unnecessary — they are harmful, because they will prevent the news industry from developing the new strategies it desperately needs.