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Monday, August 3, 2009


Now that I am a blogger, occupying a tiny corner in a backwater of the worldwide web, where the surf hardly ever reaches, I have, I figure, a responsibility to think deep thoughts about the future of newspapers. I have been a compulsive newspaper reader all my life, even though this little condominium in Chapel Hill is the first place I have ever lived where the NY TIMES actually gets delivered each morning. When I lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, I read the TIMES and the Boston GLOBE every morning, and the Daily Hampshire Gazette every afternoon [not a bad paper, actually -- during the Watergate-Nixon affair, it carried a very useful summary of what had happened since the big morning papers had come out.] In Paris, I have a go at reading LIBERATION, the socialist newspaper, though my French is not quite good enough to pick up the nuances, jokes, and allusions. One of my abiding disappointments with South Africa has been its lack of even halfway decent newspapers, save for the Daily Mail and Guardian, which is the voice of the White liberal English community [for many years, it carried Doonsebury regularly.]

The left blogosphere has been pretty hard on what is now universally referred to simply as the MSM. A good deal of this criticism is clearly warranted. Judith Miller's Iraq raportage for the TIMES was an embarrassment, and David Broder really is a horse's ass. What is more, though this is hardly a new development, newspapers are in a bad way financially, and a number of the best known papers are in danger of going under. [I first realized how parlous the finances of newspapers were when I read, some years ago, that the NY TIMES corporation makes most of its money from its ownership of lumber mills churning put the paper on which newspapers are printed. Talk about the tail wagging the dog!]

Fewer and fewer people, it seems, get such news as they absorb from newspapers. Young people in particular apparently get more of their news from the internet than from what are usually referred to as the print media, and an astonishing number of people actually cite Jon Stewart's Daily Show as their principal source of information about the larger world. So are the MSM simply passe, outmoded, no longer needed, like horses and buggies, neighborhood stables, iceboxes, and VCRs?

Let us approach an answer to this question by asking a different one: What do the people who write for newspapers do? We can distinguish four separate activities, with each of which we are all quite familiar.

The first thing they do is to serve as conduits for official announcements by governments and other bodies -- corporations, universities, NGO's, the military, and so forth. This is not a trivial or unimportant task. There is a vast flood of information coming from such organizations that the public has a need to know, or an interest in knowing. Newspapers publish that information, either verbatim or in a useful summary. When I think about how much information is actually available to us these days, I am reminded of a contrast that has long fascinated me between the task of historians writing about periods for which they have much too little information and historians writing about periods for which they have much too much information. When I was teaching European History at Harvard [this is half a century ago], I illustrated the contrast with the example of two great books: Henri Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne, in which he set forth what came to be known as the Pirenne Thesis, and Georges Lefebvre's equally great Marxist history, La Revolution Francaise. Pirenne, in trying to ascertain what brought about the collapse of late Roman civilization into what is commonly referred to as The Middle Ages, had nothing but scraps and oddments of information out of which to construct his explanation -- a line in Gregory of Tours here, a handful of coins there. His job was like that of paleontologists who try to reconstruct an early hominid from a tooth, a rib, and a femur. Lefebvre, in contrast, was flooded with data. In the early period of the events of 1787 to '89, thousands of documents, known as cahiers [or "notebooks"] were sent from the provinces to Paris, detailing the concerns and complaints of lawyers, merchants, clergy, and functionaries. No historian could possibly read all of the cahiers, let alone make reference to them all in a work of historiography.

We are, today, in the situation of Lefebvre, not Pirenne. A mountain of documents and information is available to us, and we are forced to make selections before we can even begin to consider it. Think, for example, what an historian of the 12th century French economy could do with the equivalent of what is made available by the Bureau of Labor Statistics every year in just one book, the Statistical Abstract of the United States! Good reporters help us to sift through this information. Like historians, they exhibit their theoretical and ideological presuppositions in their choices of information. That is inevitable and necessary, hence not at all reprehensible. But without their help, we would be overwhelmed.

The second thing that people who write for newspapers do is to pull together information from many different sources, written and oral, into a coherent story on some subject of public importance -- charter schools, drug imports from Canada, the up-arming of HumVees used in Iraq, the decline in manufacturing in the MidWest, that sort of thing. The reporters who write these stories function, methodologically speaking, like historians. They have the advantage of being able to talk to people who are contemporaneous with, and involved in, the subject. They have the disadvantage of not being able to use materials that only become available long afterwards -- memoirs, letters, and so forth.

The third thing people who write for newspapers do is to ferret out information that someone is trying very hard to keep secret. This is what is usally described as "investigative reporting," and since 1973, every employee of every newspaper has secretely styled himself or herself the new Woodward and Bernstein. This is an activity utterly unlike that of the historian, involving as it inevitably does the making of complicated deals with people privy to the secrets.

The fourth thing that people who write for newspapers do is to offer their opinions on matters of public interest. They write opinion columns and op ed pieces, some of which, unfortunately, masquerade as raportage.

Well [nobody ever said I was short-winded!], the first of these four functions is now almost superceded by the possibility of putting all of the data on line. The Obama administration has begun to do this, and it is inevitible, I think, that in the next three to five years, virtually everything that is public will be accessible on the web. Newspapers are not a useful medium for the distribution of this information. One simple example is the daily stock price tables, which for as long as I can recall took up endless pages at the back of the NY TIMES, and now are simply available electronically.

The last function -- offering opinions -- has also been made otiose by the web. There are a few opinionators whose work is enormously valuable -- Frank Rich comes to mind -- but one of the marvelous revelations of the web is the existence out and around America of thousands of people whose opinions about current affairs are as penetrating, as trenchant, as knowledgeable, and as funny as those put out each day by the Press's paid pontificators. We don't need Thomas Friedman to tell us about the Middle East when we have Juan Cole. We don't need Cokie Roberts when we have Arianna Huffington. And we never needed William Kristol or David Brooks.

This leaves the second and third functions, which are really crucial to a modern participatory democracy. When I think of a newspaper, it is this sort of reporting that comes to mind. The in depth examination of the existence or non-existence of Iraqi nuclear weapons, the anatomization of the process of negotiation by which a health care reform bill is put together, the real inside truth of the mystery surrounding Sarah Palin's last pregnancy.

When I read this sort of story on line, on The Huffington Post or Talking Points Memo, it is almost always via a link to a story written by a newspaper reporter and first published in a newspaper. Frequently, the link is to the TIMES or the Washington Post. Once Sarah Palin became the story du jour, the websites all linked to stories in the Anchorage Daily News, in which reporters directly familiar with the Alaska scene did the legwork that produced the news.

Now, this sort of reporting is expensive. It takes time, and that means that one or many reporters must be given the days, sometimes even weeks or months, that are required to get the story. The websites I visit daily, fascinating as they are and impressive as their visuals may be, simply do not have the money to hire first-rate full-time reporters to work up these sorts of stories.

What to do? We all need the TIMES to go on paying its reporters, so that they can generate the valuable stories that Arianna Huffington and Josh Marshall can link to. But we are less and less inclined to buy the newspapers themselves, thereby generating the readership that supports the advertising revenue on which the papers survive.

One solution that has been floated is for what we now call newspapers to become providers of raportage, charging a fee for it to be reproduced. The physical newspaper might more or less disappear, but the invaluable reporting activities would continue. I do not know whether this arrangement is capable of generating the monies required to make the career of reporter an economically feasible option. Almost certainly, a movement in this direction would result in the springing up of a number of self-employed reporters who would attempt to generate their own fees for their stories. This is really a fascinating possibility, and might result in an efflorescence, rather than a decline, in first rate reporting.

Well, this has gone on much too long. If you have made it to this far, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Other discussions of this very important topic include Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Penguin, 2008, and Cass R. Sunstein, 2.0. Princeton University Press, 2007.