Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I don't know what will - or should - happen to newspapers.

Before I brushed my teeth this morning, before I took the dog for a walk or turned on my coffee machine (yes, decaf) or did anything else, I turned the television on to MSNBC and booted up my computer to check FiveThirtyEight.com. Later today I'll run some errands, maybe bring some food to volunteers, and keep my weekly tutoring appointment, and while I do that I'll listen to Maine Public Radio.

What I won't do today is buy a newspaper.

I feel bad about this, because close friends of mine are newspaper reporters, and more than one has taken a buyout in the last couple of years. They're now working as PR professionals, teaching, writing novels and blogging. As often as not, the stories my friends used to write just don't get written any more.

It is a death spiral. Newspapers can't afford to keep their most seasoned reporters and editors, but when they let them go, the quality of news declines, and newspapers lose their credibility and their value to readers.

A month or two ago I asked one of my sisters whether she had read a story about a political candidate's bad behavior, and she asked where the article had appeared. "The New York Times," I said. "Oh, the Times," she said, making a brush-off gesture -- as if The New York Times were no more credible than the late, lamented Weekly World News.

But it's true that the country's major newspapers have missed some very big stories, and have gotten things wrong in major ways -- which is why everyone I know who's been tracking this election closely feels nervous about the real possibility that all the coverage we've been reading is simply wrong.

Newspapers are not the only ones vulnerable to this, but the process of gathering news to freeze it and print it once a day makes them more vulnerable, because we are no longer willing to give newspapers the time to be thoughtful and balanced.

In a way, the instant-news environment should make traditional newspapering more important than ever. I crave that authoritative voice, that objectivity that newspapers used to promise and still should. Slate surveyed its staff about a week ago and found that they were voting 55-1 for Obama. Granted, Slate doesn't pretend to be nonpartisan, but how can a staff that is weighted 55-1 for Obama give readers any kind of balanced look at McCain?

This Presidential election has highlighted some real and baffling divisions in this country, and addressing these divisions must be a priority for whoever our new President is. Red state/blue state is only a fraction of the story; the divisions have more to do with assumptions and expectations.

Internet-based media have led us (well, led me) to expect a landslide victory for Barack Obama -- but I can't help suspecting that this is because they're only communicating with those of us who are online.

What about the significant percentage of people in this country who aren't online, who don't get their news from the Internet, who aren't blogging and sending each other cool "Yes We Can" videos? Who is talking to them, who is counting them, and who is reporting their views?

It ought to be newspapers, I think. Newspapers seem to have spent most of the last five years trying to figure out how to compete online, and I understand that. But I also wonder whether they've forgotten about the people who don't live online, who would be, logically, the people who would really need newspapers.

If we wake up tomorrow morning to find that John McCain is the next President of the United States, it will represent a profound, mindboggling failure for online journalism. But it might be the best thing that ever happened for the newspaper business.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Clair. You put into words one of the very reasons I voted for McCain. I believe some very troubling things about Obama were glossed-over or not reported at all on the internet and TV news. I still read the paper almost every day. In a country full of centrists how is a far-left democrat going to unite the country. This will only fuel the wacko far-right, and will do even more damage.

AnswerGirl said...

I truly do not think that Obama is as far left as you think he is. Yes, he had a "liberal" voting record, but that record was during two years that saw some of the most wrong-headed legislation in American history passed.

The past eight years have seen the largest expansion in American government in the nation's history, the greatest infringements on personal rights, some of the most rampant cronyism, the worst violations of the rule of law since the Civil War -- and a $700 billion rescue plan that nationalized the US financial system and certainly constitutes a redistribution of wealth.

These were all brought to us by an administration that claimed to be conservative.

If this is conservatism, I say roll on liberals.

Anonymous said...

hey, you asked, I am the guy that still reads the newspaper. It doesn't matter, the Democrats will become so drunk with power they will shoot themselves in the foot just like the Republicans did. Oh and it was the Democrats who shut down more regulation on Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac.

Ed Lamb said...

I live online and also read the newspaper almost every day. The problem I see with print media is that it too often echoes the national and world news best reported on newswire compilation sites like Google and Yahoo!.

The local paper would be a lot more valuable to me if it took a more analytic approach -- how does what happens in Washington, D.C. affect Tidewater? for instance -- to big stories and doubled the size of the local news section.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

I don't know....if I agree with you at all on this. I think the print media has become over-vilified of late. The Times has some actions for which it needs to be taken to task (publishing a front-page article that disputed the ties between Obama and Ayres, for example, served only to validate the myth). But overall, at a time of lesser-informed debate on increasingly trivial issues that obscure the critical matters today (summarized neatly by your first post in the comments thank you very much), I still rely on institutions like the Times to lead debate.

While I tend to read the paper online, I do purchase it occasionally, since there's nothing like reading it carefully. And just because I'm a complete Obama supporter does not mean my belief that the Times is balanced (in a weird way mind you--some of the pieces it runs seem almost obligatory, designed to defend threats of favoritism more than good journalism) is wrong.

A few general observations. I believe that the great changes in the media world have not eradicated the authority of the Times as much as they have widened the gap between the great papers and the mid-tier ones. Case in point is my home town paper the Boston Globe, which has gone from mediocrity to irrelevance over the past 5-10 years. And it was once great.

Second, I think that there have been some terrific online resources that have emerged which complement the big branded media sources. Andrew Sullivan's blog, for example. Smart, pointed, a connector of varying opinions and reports and news. I certainly don't always agree with him, but believe that his blog operates the way a great online source should.

And third, look there really is great writing about the campaign, if you go and look for it. Did you read the New Yorker's endorsement of Obama? There's no clearer, more powerfully argued argument out there. I believe that the New Yorker IS partisan. Big deal. It's also fair, and honest, and smart. And it's been a terrific source of reporting for this campaign.

Finally, I really do strongly believe that there's far too much outcry about liberal media bias. A disproportionate number of examples are used to taint the messenger. Tain't so.

AnswerGirl said...

I'm not criticizing the media in general, Tom, I'm writing about daily newspapers. THE NEW YORKER, as a weekly magazine, has the luxury of time and space to be thoughtful and well-written.

Ed, what you say you want is the only way most daily newspapers will survive: thorough local reporting and some context on the national issues.

spyscribbler said...

What a great point, Clair. I haven't seen a survey on what percentage of Democrats and what percentage of Republicans are online, either.

I have a Kindle, and I really like that I can subscribe to newspapers through it. I would subscribe to a local paper in a second. As much as I respect journalism, I hate getting my hands dirty on a newspaper.

Peggy & Scott said...

Here's an interesting skew factor. I've not read a news article in a newspaper for months. Yet, I buy multiple copies of the Sunday paper....for the coupons. I've been couponing (yes, a verb) like crazy, saving 40% on groceries and household goods. Coupons have been more and more popular with people who need help making ends meet. BTW I get my "news" from NPR and talk radio in even amounts. I ingest lots of grains of salt.! Peggy

Karen Olson said...

Newspapers are dying. Because of their debt. Because they've lost ad revenue due to the Internet. Because of that they have laid off worker and offered buyouts. The ones who are gone are the ones who "cost" the most, who had been there the longest. So now there are young reporters and editors left, with no institutional memory. Because advertising is lost, the paper shrinks. Less room for news.

I check out a site every day that gives newspaper business news. It's bleak. I have no idea what will happen to newspapers. But they will not be in the future what they've been in the past. And if they can't reinvent themselves soon, they'll go the way of the dinosaur.

BTW, I worked in newspapers for over 20 years.