Thursday, February 19, 2009

Eat this.

Lately, I've been obsessively debating the gloomy future of print media with just about anyone I come in contact with. However, despite my daily intake of wrist-slashing NPR news reports and alerts on publication closures and massive layoffs, the discussion didn't quite reach a fever pitch for me until a few weeks ago. I was having dinner with a group of bloggers, when we got on the topic of print media vs. blogging. It went something like this:

Me: The New York Times cannot die! If it comes to the point where we have to make a choice between letting respected news media go or having to pay for it, I will gladly pay for it.

(who mostly posts stuff pertaining to race issues): That would never work. People expect content on the internet to be free. Global Voices Online is a great site that gives local, independent perspectives...

Me: Geezus, people blow money on stupid stuff from eBay all the time. More importantly, the press serves as a fourth branch of the government...checks and balances, democracy, the free world! Blogs can be useful and interesting, but they just don't hack it when it comes to reporting the news.

Blogger: But plenty of articles misreport information and have biases.

Me: You have a point.

Since it was a dinner hosted by my sister and her husband, or maybe because I was suffering from spring roll-induced lethargy, I let it go. In retrospect, as nice and funny as the blogger was, it's infuriating. As we all know, many blogs rely on a steady stream of information first reported by journalists from the mainstream media so that the blogger can aggregate/link/bitch about. Of course, there's the argument that some blogs scoop papers with intimate, on-the-ground info that reporters couldn't possibly dig up on their own in a similar time span. But there is a big difference between a pithy blog post with a fragment of key information and a well-researched, well-reported story that's been vetted by fact-checkers, top editors, copy editors, and any of the multitude of professionals who get a look-see before the story goes to print.

Our well-established news media, along with its savviest, experienced reporters and editors, must not go the way of the Columbia Basin Pygmy rabbit: extinct.

Upon further rumination, instead of fighting each other, perhaps the answer is uniting the best newspapers with the best blogs (Lockhart Steele's Curbed Network comes to mind), to strengthen content, keeping everyone relevant. The New New York Times, online paid subscription required.

And to fulfill my blogging responsibilities, this Time Magazine piece by Walter Isaacson couldn't have said it better. I share his sentiments, and have even ranted in recent weeks: "If iTunes can do it, then why can't the freaking L.A. Times do it, too??!!!"


chuck said...

Although you might have a point about the NYT, and maybe the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, I think that in general that local newspapers pretty much suck. Here in the Bay Area, MediaNews Group has bought up most of them and I don't think they're very good. In fact, I have argued in several articles recently that newspapers have abrogated their community responsibility. If they go away, they might be replaced by better, more community focused papers, albeit online. Check out and I can send you my stories if you like. There's good journalism going on, just not at the metros.

Claudine Ko said...

While the community-focused papers you mentioned are impressive, I wouldn't completely discount the metros. There is value in both. Like I said, it shouldn't necessarily be one or the other -- but a sort of strength-in-unity type deal. Isn't that a major point of "community" after all?

Anonymous said...

I think you are assuming that if the establishment media fixed its method for collecting revenue, then the problems plaguing the news industry would suddenly disappear. In other words, you are assuming that if media outlets are paid fairly for their products, then quality journalism is a given. The problems media outlets are now facing go beyond their ability to collect payment. I think your blog entry dismisses the very real need for media reform.

The for-profit news media, like it or not, has become so entwined with the commercial interests of its owners that the role of the journalist has been altered. Consider a news story on global warming. The story has a set of scientific facts that a skilled journalist will attempt to articulate to the public because the public, for the most part, can't grasp the fine details or the implications of the data. Presenting the facts of a story, however, is simply the most basic part of a news story. It is the analysis of the facts where problems spring up and where issues of self-censorship and commercialism come into play. Blogs and other new media forms have displayed that they play an incredibly important role on the analysis side of news stories. This is in large part because the commercial interests of for-profit media concerns have done such a poor job of including alternative perspectives on news data. Indeed, the critique from media critics like Glenn Greenwald that the Washington press corps has become nothing more than glorified stenographers is fairly obvious.

Don't get me wrong, though, I have no problem with for-profit media outlets. However, I think one of the most important ways for improving journalism and the press is to dramatically expand public broadcasting and independent media outlets. I think discussions that treat the issues surrounding the declining fortunes of journalists and the companies that employ them should also include the vital role public broadcasting and independent media play in providing news consumers with content that may have no commercial appeal. Journalism is not simply a for-profit enterprise and it's an error to only consider the craft from that perspective.

Claudine Ko said...

At a recent U.C. Berkeley J-School discussion panel I attended on the future of the SF Chronicle, professor and investigative reporter Lowell Bergman quipped that in fact, his type of in-depth, long-term reporting is anti-profit. Yes, the need for alternative voices is just that -- necessary. But how do you expand public broadcasting and independent outlets? Perhaps wrapping it in a giant Haagen-Dazs ad (see UCLA Daily)? It's not just the establishment media that needs to come up with a new business model. NPR is having economic woes as well. So hopefully, in conjunction with figuring out the new model, improvements on the journalism can be figured in as well. But not before there isn't a media outlet left to reform.

P.S. Intrepid investigator Bergman smugly mentioned that the Hearst family, which owns the SF Chron, is in no danger of ever going broke (something about their Mexican goldmines). So the question is not really, "Will the SF Chronicle die" -- but, "will the Hearst family let them die?" In other words: sure, we, the people, don't HAVE to pay for et al, but are we willing to pay for it if need be?