Monday, March 23, 2009

Newspapers Doomed, say pundits

There's been a recent spate of articles and blog posts about how newspapers are doomed. I think the ur-post was this one by Clay Shirky. They knew the internet was coming all right. They weren't blind to it. But they can't figure out how to get anyone to pay for papers in this climate, and the small ads have gone to Craig's List. And newspapers are expensive to run. Hence, doomed. And if they go, proper news goes.

If you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. This bit of economics, normal since Gutenberg, limits competition while creating positive returns to scalefor the press owner, a happy pair of economic effects that feed on each other. In a notional town with two perfectly balanced newspapers, one paper would eventually generate some small advantage — a breaking story, a key interview — at which point both advertisers and readers would come to prefer it, however slightly. That paper would in turn find it easier to capture the next dollar of advertising, at lower expense, than the competition. This would increase its dominance, which would further deepen those preferences, repeat chorus. The end result is either geographic or demographic segmentation among papers, or one paper holding a monopoly on the local mainstream audience.
For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.
Think bloggers are going to fill the hole? Hardly. I'm a blogger and I know I couldn't.

Some folks think that a million bloggers on the ground will make up for the lack of paid reporters. Who needs a press guy in Afghanistan if you can read the soldiers' tweets or the blog of an Aghani woman right on the Pakistani border? Rhetorical question. You do need a press guy. You can't have everyone in the world reading everyone else in the world's tweets - it's not practical. And figuring out if the Afghani woman is actually an Afghani woman and not a Pakistani secret policeman sowing disinformation is beyond most of us anyway.

Shirky says,
"Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole."
Here is David Simon in the Washington Post with a long and interesting example. Am I going to show up to see the local police Desk Sergeant and demand his arrest log - even though I'm entitled to see it? Nope.

In response to such flummery [failing to hand over details of an arrest], I had in my wallet, next to my Baltimore Sun press pass, a business card for Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court, with his home phone number on the back. When confronted with a desk sergeant or police spokesman convinced that the public had no right to know who had shot whom in the 1400 block of North Bentalou Street, I would dial the judge.

And then I would stand, secretly delighted, as yet another police officer learned not only the fundamentals of Maryland's public information law, but the fact that as custodian of public records, he needed to kick out the face sheet of any incident report and open his arrest log to immediate inspection. There are civil penalties for refusing to do so, the judge would assure him. And as chief judge of the District Court, he would declare, I may well invoke said penalties if you go further down this path.
With his bureau eviscerated, it's hard to get that sort of information.
Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit -- these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information. And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department's officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.
He's right. But nobody yet knows how to do that. The ability to keep an eye on the state is collapsing at the same time the state's ability to keep an eye on you is growing.

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