About July 2009
Trendwatchers have been noticing the decline of the newspaper for years. Some want to stop it; some want to speed it up. In this issue, we’re going to ask what comes next.
The decline of traditional newspapers is all around us. Readership is broadly in decline; ad revenues have been down; and online services like Craigslist and eBay do much of the work that classified ads formerly did. Newspapers across the country have been folding, and the younger a person is these days, the more likely he is not to read a newspaper at all — never a good trend for a business.
Internet readership isn’t anything like a perfect equivalent. Online, readers may pre-select whatever news items they like, and they need not even be tempted to read stories that don’t appeal to them. It may prove that serious journalism — that is, stories about current events with original research and in-depth analysis — has less appeal than previous eras understood. Yet serious journalism is crucial for informed democracy.
How will we solve this enormous public goods problem, which the pre-Internet age seems to have solved with a clever bundling of news and advertising? Or is it less of a problem than we imagine? This month, we’ve invited a distinguished panel of journalism and social networking experts to discuss one of the most important issues in our democracy today. The lead essayist is the noted author and social theorist Clay Shirky; responses will be by journalism professor Philip Meyer, sociologist Paul Starr, and print-to-online crossover journalist Steve Yelvington.
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.
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.