Newspaper Bailout

I will never understand how the fedora went out of style.I heard the suggestion on the radio recently that, with America’s newspapers failing, it may be time for a newspaper bailout. I’m forced to wonder why. I mean, I have several friends who currently work or have worked on professional newspapers, and I have a great deal of respect for journalism, but I think that a newspaper bailout would–for almost wholly non-financial reasons–be a terrible idea.

Print media is struggling. The age of 24-hour news networks and up-to-the-moment coverage online has made the newspaper a bit of a dinosaur. By the time a paper reaches the consumer, it has been outdated since before it was sent to press. The “news” is no longer new, having already been covered for a day or more on cable TV and blogs. A consumer is forced to wonder why they should pay for the same news they got for free online or as part of their prepaid cable package the day before. Not only that, but given the number of good investigative blogs and the specialization of the Internet, a consumer can bookmark a few sites that focus on the issues and angles they care about, rather than slogging through a printed newspaper that isn’t nearly as open about its biases or narrowly-focused in its coverage.

Newspapers have tried to fight this by emulating the newer media, adding more coverage of blonde girl disappearances and celebrity news, developing online presences, and so forth, likely reasoning that the way to stay solvent and relevant is to give the people what they seem to want. This line of thinking might usually lead to success, but here it has only hastened the slide into obsolescence. Newspapers aren’t giving readers what they want, they’re giving readers what they already have and what they’ve already paid for.

There was a way out for newspapers, though I’m not sure this is an option anymore. Whether it’s just the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia and Superman fandom or an actual truth of history, it seems as though newspapers used to be houses of investigators, who asked tough questions, spoke truth to power, and tried to give the public the best information possible. The quality and integrity of reporting has declined steadily and precipitously since the days of Woodward and Bernstein, and both print and television media are dominated by talking heads who flat-out refuse to ask follow-up questions or investigate anything. “The truth” has ceased to be about ferreting out facts and pressuring sources, and has become the fallacious golden mean between extremes. “Balance” is the name of the game in reporting, and so each story about evolution consults a creationist for their opinion, as though the two are on equal footing, as though the two points of view merit equal consideration. The same can be said about any contentious issue–reporters will interview two people on opposing sides, thus finding “balance,” no matter how shaky and on-the-fringe one or the other side’s case may be. This is, of course, neglecting all those cases where two people who aren’t actually on opposing sides are consulted to provide a very tipped balance, or cases where the claims of one side of some issue are reported verbatim, completely unchallenged and uncriticized. When journalists as a whole doffed their fedoras with the press passes on the brims, they appear to have doffed their spines as well.

Bloggers (and a couple of late-night comedy TV hosts) have taken on the role of the investigative-reporter-with-integrity, which newspaper and TV reporters appear to have left behind almost completely. I don’t mean to say that every blogger is Edward R. Murrow, but it seems that Internet journalists are the ones most likely to press issues, ask difficult questions, and speak truth to power–and they have the added benefit of instantly updating, always being on the cutting edge of the news. There’s certainly a lot of crap in the blogosphere, and I can think of few bloggers or blog organizations with the kind of resources and connections that even smaller newspapers have, but the torch of journalistic integrity has been picked up by the unwashed masses of the new media.

If newspapers were going to find a way out of this, a way of reclaiming relevance, then they would have to reclaim the bygone ideal of the investigative journalist. They’d have to offer the public something they can’t get elsewhere: the truth, unvarnished, uncluttered, and uncomfortable. They’d have to commit themselves to ethics, to finding the facts and presenting them honestly, to eliminating bias not through misguided balance but through objective assessment of reality. They’d have to exercise strict standards on fact-checking and quality control, making a commitment to providing the public with the best information and the most well-informed opinions. They’d have to leave the celebrity-stalking, rumor-mongering, and the political wonkery to the bloggers, who do it better, faster, cheaper, and without the risk of damaged credibility.

It’d mean a hit in readership, to be certain. It’d also probably mean decreased page counts and eliminated sections. But I think streamlining in order to appeal to the niche market of ‘people who care about reality and want to know more about it’ is probably better than obsolescence due to lead time in reporting on missing white girls and pregnant starlets.

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One Response to Newspaper Bailout

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