Our democracy, which depends on a free and informed electorate, is in danger!
This is not the fault of any political party, and the coming election has nothing to do with it. It has to do with the possible imminent demise of good journalism and the newspapers that support it. And that has to do with both the financial problems of existing newspapers and our apparent unwillingness to pay for something better.
Thomas Jefferson said it eloquently in 1786. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” This is also expressed in the clause in the first amendment of our Constitution – “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 makes it even more explicit. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
So – is anyone here opposed to freedom of opinion and expression? Not likely. And we mostly seem to have it. We certainly have ways for LOTS of people to express their opinions – on newspaper websites, and blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter, in self-published books, etc. etc. etc. And this is good. But an informed electorate needs more than JUST lots of opinions, freely expressed and published. We need good journalism that reports the news that’s hard to find, that occurs in places far away from us, that is hidden by special interests (including our government and our politicians). And that reveals opinions that are not always what we already believe and that introduce new vetted facts into our world view.
Traditionally, newspapers have provided most of that kind of journalism. Think about The Washington Post and Watergate, the New York Times and WikiLeaks, The Washington Post again with an expose of the terrible conditions for injured veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center, the mostly-ignored early warnings about the fragility of the big mortgage lenders in The Wall Street Journal and more.
So I feel we have a need for professional journalists. But do we need them to write for print newspapers? Can’t we find out everything we need to know from “the web”? We can see fast breaking news stories without waiting for the next edition of the paper. We can go look whenever (if ever?) we want to know something. Isn’t that enough?
It might be, as long as the websites have a source for their news and commentaries and as long as we remember to go look for more than the latest sports scores. Who does go get those stories, verify the facts and the sources, and write them up? Most of it comes from newspaper companies now. What will happen if the newspaper companies disappear? Can we rely on “crowd-sourcing” and bloggers? Can the typical blogger afford to send reporters around the world to cover world news? Can an individual afford to spend more than a year tracking down the details of the risky activities of Wall Street insiders? Who will keep a watchdog eye on local school boards and town councils? And, most importantly, who will verify that the details are accurate and unbiased? The “free” news on the internet won’t be there if no one pays the reporters to get it
Well, there’s always TV news. National TV news organizations DO currently send their reporters all over the country and the world. But what they typically report on the national evening news is more like entertainment sound bites than investigative journalism. (For a more eloquent description of this trend, visit http://bit.ly/NDyljJ to see the video of Bill Moyers interviewing Marty Kaplan). Local news broadcasts are mostly police There ARE 60 Minutes and Frontline who take up some of the slack. But then, there is also Fox News.
Obtaining and presenting news – especially more than just the surface news – takes money. Where does a news organization get this money?
Whether it’s for TV, radio or print, the money comes from advertisers. Any money that comes from consumers is mostly gravy.
Of course, the advertisers are looking for money from the consumers. They want you to see their ads and buy things – lots of things. They will place their ads, and thus support the publishers of the content around the ads, where they spend the least for the greatest return. That USED to be in the newspaper. Print newspapers used to be king in the classified advertising market, for example. Now there’s Google search, yahoo, Craig’s List, Facebook, Twitter, etc. There are many places to publish ads; this is no longer a captive market for newspapers. The problem is that these other places have no mandate (or even desire) to also give the readers good journalism.
This chart, which you’ve all probably seen, shows the decline in print advertising in US newspapers since 2005.
But newspapers have websites and they’re making this up in revenue from online advertising, right? The Poynter Institute recently published a study that says “Newspapers are losing $7 in print revenue for every $1 in digital gained.” It is probably even worse now since newspaper digital ad growth seems to be slowing down.
The “all digital” movement that’s being preached in newspaper industry circles lately doesn’t seem to be working out too well. Add to that the fact that most newspaper websites are “free”, and this looks like a business model that is failing.
What can newspaper companies do about this? What can we, as citizens in a democracy, do about it?
Too many newspaper websites are just formatted dumps of the content in the print product. It should certainly be possible to present great content on the web and draw the reader in to promote interaction in a way nothing in print can. You can find occasional examples of this – most noticeably in online polls, the opportunity to comment on stories and opinions, and solicitation of reader photos. But news organizations can get MUCH more creative – I’m confident they can.
There’s one kind of quirky example: a website in DC (not a newspaper, unfortunately) that covers only crime stories, but keeps a running update of each one on a dedicated page with links between similar incidents (www.spotcrime.com). Not the most critical commentary perhaps – but a very creative way to use the web format.
Another possible example: Barack Obama has just mandated that government agencies provide data about all of their spending accessible through the web. It’s likely to be just a dump of numbers, hard to organize and compare across agencies. Where could you go to make sense of this information? How about if your local newspaper, a source you know and trust, led you to this data and had software that put it in a format you COULD read?
There’s undoubtedly some exciting interactive experiences coming for us.
But then, when online newspapers start being creative and engaging AND still fulfilling the need for what Steve Buttry of the Journal Register Co. describes as, “commitment to getting the facts right, dedication to seeking and reporting the truth, high ethical standards, holding the powerful — and ourselves — accountable, serving the watchdog role with honor,” it’s up to all of us to be willing to pay for this service. When that website you’ve been jumping to for your news fix or your sports scores puts up a paywall, subscribe and be grateful it’s there. There is no such thing as “free journalism.” Pay for it and use it to become an informed citizen of a free society.