Home > Government, Journalism, Media > Broken, Not Breaking, News?

Broken, Not Breaking, News?

“Anyone with a laptop thinks he’s a journalist.”

Are you talking about me?

Actually, I think I was one of the few people at last night’s panel discussion who wasn’t typing away as the four participants ruminated on “The Future of News.” (The incessant keyboard clacking behind my right ear was particularly irritating.) The event at Yale featured some of the usual hand-wringing among some veteran journalists  over the rise of the New Media (blogging, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) and the demise of the dinosaurish Old Media, a slow death many others seem to relish.

I don’t. And neither do the panelists: Ward Chamberlin, author of the opening quote, David Greenway, Robert Kaiser, and John Yemma. But we all seem resigned to the fact that changes are afoot, many of them not good. The Old Media is trying to adapt, but cultural and financial forces are a major obstacle.

Suffice to say, we will most likely not see again the Golden Age of American Journalism the four panelists represent. Between them, I would guess they have well over one hundreds years of experience. Chamberlin was present at the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR; Kaiser has worked for almost 50 years at the Washington Post, as both a reporter and editor; Greenway has been at the Post and the Boston Globe; and Yemma worked under Greenway at the Globe and now works for the Christian Science Monitor.


Ward Chamberlin

Ah, the Golden Age: Chamberlin recalled the days of Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow at CBS, and mentioned their news programs that not only recorded events, but shaped them, in particular Murrow’s piece on Joseph McCarthy. Friendly’s ethos, as recounted by Chamberlin: “What the American people aren’t told [by governments, corporations] may kill them.” Without investigative reporting, the kind that goes on for months and requires big bucks to finance, what New Media outlets are going to uncover the deadly, hidden truths? The Huffington Post? Hmm…

CBS News set a high standard for foreign reporting too, with bureaus around the world. All the panelists lamented the decline in foreign news, while globalization speeds along. How can we deal with the economic challenges India and China will present (are presenting), not to mention the security challenges of foreign terrorists, when several major papers have closed all their overseas bureaus, and TV news virtually ignores all but the most obvious foreign stories?


Robert Kaiser

For the Washington Post, Kaiser said, the salad days meant huge profits, now-unheard-of  levels of subscription “penetration” in the local market, and the kind of investigative reporting that helped bring down a felonious president. The Post once made $130 million in annual profits. It now loses about $100 million every year. Only the Post company’s cash cow, Kaplan Test Prep, keeps the newsgathering afloat. The other two remaining major dailies, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, also lose money.

New Media outlets are sometimes called aggregators, as bloggers gather up links and presents them in “their” news blogs (of course, most of the substantive links, the ones you regularly trust, go back to Old Media stories). The great papers were once aggregators of another kind, Kaiser said. They collected readers from a variety of backgrounds and gave them a common cultural identity. Everybody read about the JFK assassination or the first man on the moon. Now, the specialization of many New Media outlets fragments the audience, to the detriment of a sense of national culture (and forget about consensus). The papers also aggregated talent: Smart, young journalists wanted to work for the biggies, and they learned from smart old journalists and tried to keep some professional standards (in theory, anyway). The solitary bloggers are not part of a community, might have an ax to grind, just might not be any good. Some people like the free-for-all nature of it; so what if a little truth gets tossed aside along the way.


David Greenway

Greenway talked about the blurring of opinion and news. Now, I have always argued there is no such thing as objective news, but there is accurate news. The rise of opinion shows on news channels, especially Fox, seems to dampen the call for accuracy as networks put more emphasis on entertainment. On the Internet, Greenway says, the problem is even worse, since there is no gatekeeper of any kind, no concern for checking facts. Yes,  we should get a variety of viewspoints – though I doubt many people who rely solely on the New Media for their news do – but if all the views are just plain wrong, what kind of conclusions can you draw? Pretty ill-informed ones. Greenway sums it up: “Civil discourse is being debased and dumbed down.”


John Yemma - yes, another old (oldish) white guy...

Yemma approached the subject form a different angle. The CSM, in the name of cost cutting, has stopped printing its daily paper (a “green” decision as well) and put almost all its content on the Web. (Yes, even a non-profit news organization has to think about losing less money.) And who knows, Yemma says, online ads and some subscription services could even make a profit for the Monitor. Yemma says web traffic is up, though story word counts are down (folks can buy the CSM’s weekly newsmagazine for deeper analysis of key events), and he trumpets the up-to-the-minute nature of the e-paper, something that has made the Post’s and Times’s websites popular too. But those are Old Media newsgathers using modern tools; it’s not really New Media.

The CSM approach may or may not be a model for others in the Old Media. Other alternatives include the non-profit, independent online “newspapers” that are popping up, with income (usually from grants and the like) paying real reporters to cover local events. New Haven has one, among other cities. But again, for the national stories, the foreign, the deep investigative reports, you need the funding a large corporation provides.

Or a billionaire. The great urban newspapers were mostly founded by wealthy citizens of a community. They and their families ran the paper as a public service – and an ego boost – not a source of income. As those papers die off or get swallowed up, the bottom line replaces the sense of responsibility, of the duty to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Maybe it will take a Gates or Buffet to use some of his billions to endow a newspaper foundation. Of course, some sort of wall between the paper’s journalistic duties and their benefactors’ business interests would have to be erected.

Newspapers are a fairly new development in the world’s cultural history – less than 400 years old. Electronic newsgathering is a mere tyke. The tools change, the formats change. But there’s one constant, at least in America –  voters in a republic need access to accurate information from a source separate from vested interests. I know some New Media do that. And plenty of corporate Old Media is pretty well vested in the status quo. But the Drudge Report’s releasing a leaked memo or some guy videotaping a candidate saying “macaca” does not quite equal Murrow, Woodward, and Bernstein. (Though YouTube videos from Iranian protests were gripping, and the Internet does make it easier for Old Media companies to use foreign stringers to replace some of their shuttered bureaus.) Maybe the New Media will reach that level of relevance, as far as playing a role in meaningful civil discourse. But will it be something truly new that emerges from that media, or an adaptation of the Old Media to the new technology?

I close with quotes from two of the Founders on the importance of journalists, not bloviators and aggregators. Ben Franklin: “When Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” And James Madison: “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.” Let’s hope the New Media  lives up to those standards, and the Old Media that have strayed return to their roots.

  1. November 10, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways, including his remarkable quotable aphorisms. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award http://bit.ly/z8Ckp

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