The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers
Regrettably the loud discussion of the collapse of journalism has been far stronger in describing the symptoms than in providing remedies. With the frank acknowledgment that the old commercial system has failed and will not return, there has been a flurry of modest proposals to address the immodest crisis. These range from schemes to further consolidate news gathering at the local level to pleas for donations from news consumers and hopes that hard-pressed philanthropists and foundations will decide to go into the news business. And they range from ineffectual to improbable to undesirable. Walter Isaacson has proposed that newspapers come up with a plan to charge readers "micropayments" for online content. Even if such a system were practically possible, the last thing we should do is erect electronic walls that block the openness and democratic genius of the Internet.
Don't get us wrong. We are enthusiastic about many of the efforts to promote original journalism online, such as ProPublica, Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post. We cheer on exciting local endeavors, such as MinnPost in the Twin Cities--a nonprofit, five-day-a-week online journal that covers Minnesota politics with support from major foundations, wealthy families and roughly 900 member-donors contributing $10 to $10,000. But even our friends at MinnPost acknowledge that their project is not filling the void in a metro area that still has two large, if struggling, daily newspapers. Just about every serious journalist involved in an online project will readily concede that even if these ventures pan out, we will still have a dreadfully undernourished journalism system with considerably less news gathering and reporting, especially at the local level.
For all their merits and flaws, these fixes are mere triage strategies. They are not cures; in fact, if there is a risk in them, it is that they might briefly discourage the needed reshaping of ownership models that are destined to fail.
The place to begin crafting solutions is with the understanding that the economic downturn did not cause the crisis in journalism; nor did the Internet. The economic collapse and Internet have greatly accentuated and accelerated a process that can be traced back to the 1970s, when corporate ownership and consolidation of newspapers took off. It was then that managers began to balance their books and to satisfy the demand from investors for ever-increasing returns by cutting journalists and shutting news bureaus. Go back and read a daily newspaper published in a medium-size American city in the 1960s, and you will be awed by the rich mix of international, national and local news coverage and by the frequency with which "outsiders"--civil rights campaigners, antiwar activists and consumer advocates like Ralph Nader--ended up on the front page.
As long ago as the late 1980s and early 1990s, prominent journalists and editors like Jim Squires were quitting the field in disgust at the contempt corporate management displayed toward journalism. Print advertising, which still accounts for the lion's share of newspaper revenue, declined gently as a percentage of all ad spending from 1950 to '90, as television grew in importance. Starting in 1990, well before the rise of the web as a competitor for ad dollars, newspaper ad revenues went into a sharp decline, from 26 percent of all media advertising that year to what will likely be around 10 percent this year.
Even before that decline, newspaper owners were choosing short-term profits over long-term viability. As far back as 1983, legendary reporter Ben Bagdikian warned publishers that if they continued to water down their journalism and replace it with (less expensive) fluff, they would undermine their raison d'être and fail to cultivate younger readers. But corporate newspaper owners abandoned any responsibility to maintain the franchise. When the Internet came along, newspapers were already heading due south.
We do not mean to suggest that '60s journalism was perfect or that we should aim to return there. Even then journalism suffered from a generally agreed-upon professional code that relied far too heavily on official sources to set the news agenda and decide the range of debate in our political culture. That weakness of journalism has been magnified in the era of corporate control, leaving us with a situation most commentators are loath to acknowledge: the quality of journalism in the United States today is dreadful.
Of course, there are still tremendous journalists doing outstanding work, but they battle a system increasingly pushing in the opposite direction. (That is why some of the most powerful statements about our current circumstances come in the form of books, like Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine; or documentaries, like Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine; or beat reporting in magazines, like that of Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh at The New Yorker.) The news media blew the coverage of the Iraq invasion, spoon-feeding us lies masquerading as fact-checked verities. They missed the past decade of corporate scandals. They cheered on the housing bubble and genuflected before the financial sector (and Gilded Age levels of wealth and inequality) as it blasted debt and speculation far beyond what the real economy could sustain. Today they do almost no investigation into where the trillions of public dollars being spent by the Federal Reserve and Treasury are going but spare not a moment to update us on the "Octomom." They trade in trivia and reduce everything to spin, even matters of life and death.
No wonder young people find mainstream journalism uninviting; it would almost be more frightening if they embraced what passes for news today. Older Americans have been giving up on old media too, if not as rapidly and thoroughly as the young. If we are going to address the crisis in journalism, we have to come up with solutions that provide us with hard-hitting reporting that monitors people in power, that engages all our people, not just the classes attractive to advertisers, and that seeks to draw all Americans into public life. Going backward is not an option; nor is it desirable. The old corporate media system choked on its own excess. We should not seek to restore or re-create it. We have to move forward to a system that creates a journalism far superior to that of the recent past.
We can do exactly that--but only if we recognize and embrace the necessity of government intervention. Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. We understand that this is a controversial position. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently engineered a $765 million bailout of French newspapers, free marketeers rushed to the barricades to declare, "No, no, not in the land of the free press." Conventional wisdom says that the founders intended the press to be entirely independent of the state, to preserve the integrity of the press. Bree Nordenson notes that when she informed famed journalist Tom Rosenstiel that her visionary 2007 Columbia Journalism Review article concerned the ways government could support the press, Rosenstiel "responded brusquely, 'Well, I'm not a big fan of government support.' I explained that I just wanted to put the possibility on the table. 'Well, I'd take it off the table,' he said."
We are sympathetic to that position. As writers, we have been routinely critical of government--Democratic and Republican--over the past three decades and antagonistic to those in power. Policies that would allow politicians to exercise even the slightest control over the news are, in our view, not only frightening but unacceptable. Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail.