Monday, June 8, 2009
How I will save the newspapers
First of all, if newspapers are going to exist in the future they are going to have to operate on a shoe string. Plenty of people make money off of print media and the web. They just don't make a lot of money. Maybe the future of journalism will look like the past of journalism. In the early days, journalists led far more miserable lives than they do today, which is saying something. Today journalists have fancy degrees and make enough to live in the suburbs, as one veteran of the field observed to me. This is bad.
In the future there may be less work for journalists and journalism may have to step down from its lofty position as a respected profession. Journalists may have to go back to being like other writers: poor people who are generally mistrusted by society and looked down on by their families.
People worry that without huge corporate-owned media conglomerates there will be no decent coverage of international news. This just in: there is no decent coverage of international news. Newspapers and other news outlets haven't been investing in that for years.
A small, lean, independent and web-oriented newspaper business might find that it actually doesn't cost that much to send a brave, reasonably articulate kid overseas with a camera. This will become clearer after all the giants collapse.
(I have an alternate theory that newspapers will really go the way of the dodo, that TV news will just have to get better and that written journalism in the future will be funded by television stations and mostly will be available on the web as a supplement to TV news and podcasts, which will all simply have to get better. These written news stories will have to justify their existence by being either lightning quick updates or seriously in-depth and fascinating reports that expand on subjects touched on in necessarily short TV spots. But I don't think it has to turn out that way.)
(Oddly enough, NPR is quietly doing a terrific job of having a useful and interesting multimedia web presence. But they are not for profit so no one is going to take them seriously as a model, even though they are one of the best news sources in America and everyone fucking knows it.)
But back to newspapers sucking so hard. I fell in love with newspapers as a child, and especially with the international news features I read in the New York Times. I love a well-written, in-depth news or feature story, but I feel like something has gone wrong in the culture of newspapers. I think it somehow stems, ironically, from the fact that the towering accomplishments of journalists since the field became professionalized have been so very breathtaking. Then came the destruction of the World Trade Center and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter two were treated as justifiably foregone conclusions by the shell-shocked mainstream media. They never recovered from that and now I don't care if they ever do. I felt, and still feel, abandoned.
I found an intelligent and in-depth response to what was going on around me in books and in scattered magazine articles, even in comics, but not in newspapers and certainly not on television.
And this is my problem with the extreme responsibility of newspapers. The fear of seeming biased, the idolization of objectivity as an ideal that can never be questioned, leads to coverage that is kind of dumb. You don't just write down everything the president says and print it. If that's all you are doing then what good is all your supposedly valuable "access"? Reporters today are expected to know more and more but think less and less. Slow the fuck down and think. Screw your damn 24-hour news cycle.
I realize that there is some great reporting going on but I think that it has been going on in defiance of the prevailing culture in news and not because of it. The concept of objectivity as practiced in newspapers is hypocritical and needs a total overhaul.
The book pictured above is The Sun and the Moon by Matthew Goodman. Despite the fact that it is a book about the New York Sun in the 19th century printing a false science story about a telescope that revealed man-bats living on the moon, I found it very inspiring.
In the good old days some reporters were educated but others were not that educated. And most newspapers had a clear bias. For me, there is something so clean and honest about that. Especially since these biases were often vociferous and extreme.
Papers called other papers on their shit and argued for totally crazy Utopian visions like an America without slavery where women could vote. We need to get back to that and stop wringing our hands over things like "balance" and "libel." No one individual publication need shoulder the paternalistic burden of presenting a measured response to events and interpreting them for an ignorant public. We don't live in that world anymore. Everything that has ever happened is on YouTube now.
Unfortunately, nearly all newspapers shoulder that useless burden and the result is that they are really dull. Maybe they are failing because you can read all of them on the Internet and they are all saying the same things and reprinting the same stories in accordance with conventional wisdom. Any paper that does something even slightly different has an immediate economic edge over the competition.
Op-ed columns usually only have opinions that are reasonably palatable and, whether right or left, can be expected to represent the pre-existing opinions of some percentage of readers. This is a boring and pointless approach to opinion and news analysis. Exciting and truly controversial ideas should not be relegated to special interest publications and intellectual magazines of various stripes. Why can't I open a newspaper and be surprised by what I find there? (Okay, the Wall Street Journal does a decent job of shaking things up.)
Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy but that doesn't mean the press itself is. Not through its very existence anyway. Newspapers need to stop putting on airs and acting like the saviors of the free world and the sole protectors of truth. For one thing, they clearly don't have a corner on that market now and they never did.
Once the giant dinosaurs die out, they can be replaced by cool, humble little mammals and the cycle will begin anew. But, for a time, the little mammals can be useful, relevant and possibly even economically viable.
Note: I will not be starting one of these publications of the past/future myself but I am willing to work for one as a consultant for a small retainer.