If newspapers die, will we lose anything?

My friend and former editor Anne Tanner worries about the future of journalism, and of newspapers in particular, as I do.  She e-mailed me a link to an article in Britain’s Prospect Magazine about the future of newspapers, from which I pull the excerpt below.

So far, the online news world has had a slightly shabby reputation.  On the one hand there are endless feeds simply repeating or re-tweeting the same basic information; the spread of lazy list-based journalism; and the parasite websites, picking the dirty bits out of the teeth of the major news corporations.  On the other hand there is the reactive underworld of almost incoherent anger, the moon-faced, flabby-fingered trolls who reduce all public argument to puerile sexual abuse.

newspaper-2Yet as more and more of us turn to our laptops, the news is getting better.  When I am researching I like to “read sideways”—that is, find a story or a footnote, trace it down to its origin, and keep going from there.  This sideways reading, made possible by hyperlinks, is the essence of the best of what is on the web.

On websites such as Buzzfeed, there is delight as well as disappointment.  The disappointment is that although there are in-depth essays and some foreign coverage, it’s still a long way from the regular, reliable foreign news service that the average news junkie would expect from the average serious newspaper.  The delight is about the ingenuity and creativity of its staff—if you haven’t seen Kelly Oakes’s “If newspaper headlines were scientifically accurate” you are missing something special.

It’s not only possible to become a really well-informed and engaged person by reading the news—it’s getting easier all the time. But relying on a single, under-funded, pressurized editorial team and a dampish wodge of flattened spruce arriving on your doormat every day is no longer the best way to go about it.  You just have to be more proactive and spend a bit more time to get what you need

Source: Prospect Magazine

The local news coverage in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle is a lot thinner than it was when Anne and I worked for.  That isn’t the fault of the reporters.  On average they’re pretty good and some are outstanding.

But they’re stretched thinner than in my day, they have a smaller space allocated to news and a good deal of the space is devoted to fashion, personal advice and topics other than public affairs.

I get the impression that priorities are set more by corporate policy based on readership surveys and focus groups, and less on editors’ personal judgment.

National and international news are no longer edited locally, but are delivered in a special section of USA Today.  Both it and the D&C are part of the Gannett chain.

216_feature_cover1.tif1-1024x768These days I get most of my national and international news on the Internet.

The Internet makes it much easier to be informed, provided you have a certain amount of spare time, as I do, and you have enough knowledge to be able to separate informational wheat from chaff.   I’m able to gather information at my computer at home in 15 or 30 minutes that, in the old days, would have meant spending all afternoon at the public library or on the telephone.

But without a minimum amount of time and basic knowledge, it also is much easier to be misinformed.  News coverage by the major TV networks and most local newspapers is superficial, by the standards of 30 years ago.

The Internet provides a huge amount of information, but without quality control beyond the judgment and skepticism of the individual.

A old friend was kind enough to tell me recently that he finds this blog more informative than the New York Times.  That was nice to hear, but it isn’t so.

The fact is that this blog is at the end of a long informational food chain that is highly dependent on the New York Times and other traditional print and broadcast news organizations.

I am not the equivalent of a newspaper editor or a newspaper reporter.  I am the equivalent of somebody who writes a lot of letters to the editor, with the difference that all of mine are published.

That’s not to say that blogs as such do not provide good original content.  Possibly the most valuable service this blog provides is links to these other blogs – for example, naked capitalism.  But a large part of the value of even that blog is its twice-daily roundups of links to articles published elsewhere.

Newspapers have a long history, and there was only a brief period in which journalists aspired to professional standards of accuracy, objectivity and public service.  I think most journalists still do, but increasing numbers of newspaper and broadcast owners worry about economic survival, and are only interested in what increases circulation, viewership and revenue.

A.J. Liebling, the great press critic, once remarked that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.  With an Internet operating under net neutrality, everybody has the equivalent of a printing press.   As the Internet becomes more important, the quality of journalism will become more extreme – no minimum guaranteed objectivity or accuracy, but greater possibilities of diversity, originality and creativity.

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