The future of news: Death or democratization?

When newspaper editors retire, they usually have a few cogent things to say. Doug Clifton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is no exception. His bottom line: 1) Journalism is essential to the well-being of democracy and 2) the Internet is going to kill it.

Says Mr. Clifton, an editor I’ve always admired:

Journalism, I would argue, provides the lubricant that keeps the wheels of democracy spinning. It is the ultimate check in our system of checks and balances. It evens the contest between the haves and the have-nots. Even with its countless flaws, its frequent excesses, its sometimes mindless pursuit of the trivial, journalism ensures balance in society’s balance of power.

The business model of newspapers — provide content for people to read so that advertisers will pay to put products and services in front of those people — is being shredded by the Internet’s predilection that “all content is free.” That’s not good, he says, “[b]ecause without journalism, democracy and civil society will falter. ” A nice and valid sentiment, but how applicable is it today?

I sit in my office on my butt gathering the research I use for my posts in great measure from … newspaper Web sites. I’m one of Mr. Clifton’s sinners who get content for free from journalists who produced it. That’s got to change, says Mr. Clifton. Otherwise newspapers die, and journalism dies with it.

Or does it? Not according to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. He said this to a Stanford University audience this week:

We face a wrenching transition, and at the end of it our newspapers may or may not be paper, but, as the saying goes, they will still be black, white and read all over.

At the same gig, this from Harry Chandler, an heir of the Los Angeles Times Chandlers:

The bad news is pretty clear. The newspaper business model is pretty out of whack, and I don’t even know what a whack is. I think we’re five to 10 years away from finding where the stasis is, and there will be a lot of pain before we get there.

The news biz isn’t dying, many say. It’s changing, and those changes are externally driven. Anne Gordon, departing managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says the newspaper business has to take its head out of the sand:

Change is coming from the outside and not from the inside. There’s too much resistance to change among newspaper people.

Ms. Gordon’s perspective is considerably different, and perhaps more realistic, than Mr. Clifton’s “the Internet sky is falling” claim. Hers reflects changes in the role of the journalist, the nature of the audience, and the impact on civil society. Says Ms. Gordon:

• Newspapers will be one of hundreds if not thousands of ways people receive their news.
• I see print journalists playing an active role less in the breaking of news and more in the analytical side-explaining it.
• I see opinionated, personality-driven voices breaking free of newspapers, going out on their own and becoming stars.
• I see journalists who will have to become real experts — Ph.D.s in select subjects. There will be stars who will earn a lot of money, and everyone else will earn a lot less.
• I also believe this whole democratization of news, with a give and take between the provider and consumer, is not a trend but a reality of the next generation.

The notion of democratization of news may be hard for traditional journalists to grok fully (me included), but Ms. Gordon does.

But what about that give-and-take between Web news providers and interactive Internet citizens that’s supposed to turn us into full, flourishing members of civil society? Too much is assumed.

For example: What assumptions does Ms. Gordon make about the levels of intelligence, communication abilities and education on the part of “consumer” taking part in the democratization of news? To wit, are we bright enough, lucid enough and smart enough to turn Ms. Gordon’s “democratization” into a civilly sound reality? (Read 2008 presidential candidate Doc Slammy’s education platform.)

I dunno. Mr. Clifton says it’s journalism that protects democracy. Ms. Gordon says its the democratization of journalism that will be the reality. Meanwhile, others like Mr. Keller and Mr. Chandler are negotiating the distinction between the two in terms of the financial survival of companies that produce news.

Meanwhile, newspapers cut staff, reducing local news coverage. Internet “freedom” (chaos and cacophony) reigns. Credibility of information providers in both has become a crap shoot.

At least consultants are making lots of money selling new newspaper business models that haven’t a prayer of working …

xpost: 5th Estate

3 replies »

  1. This is yet another piece that has me pondering more and more about what I said on Boz’s post yesterday.

    I see how the Net certainly enables a lot of great things that weren’t possible in the one-way gatekept world of Old Media. There are people out here who are worth hearing and we might not have heard them otherwise. At the same time, those elite institutions served a purpose, and I worry that the economics of it all are going to make it really hard for those kinds of functions to survive. Comment is easy to find, but it takes resources to drive reportage – blogs still don’t do that very well. And say what you like about the democratization of things, but there’s a tremendous value to the certifying and filtering function of the papers.

    Yeah, I want to have my cake and eat it, too. So many of the people making decisions in the media world need to be economically Darwinized, but at the same time, I’m hoping that the evolution of the press will allow us to at least keep the baby as we’re tossing out the bathwater.

  2. Are we agreeing or disagreeing? 😉

    A local satirist, Peter Dirk-Uys calls journalism the Vaseline of political intercourse.

    I’ll stick with what I said earlier: media companies are going to do fine, just as soon they get done buying up all the best blog sites and contracting the most popular bloggers. Rupert Murdoch has already done quite well for himself.