Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Saving sections of the daily newspaper

There’s nothing like a meeting on the future of journalism to get you concerned about the future of journalism. While there are some brilliant and exciting ideas discussed at conferences like the Knight Foundation-sponsored meeting I attended yesterday, there’s also a very clear sense that some of the very basic questions surrounding the future of journalism remain unanswered. The biggest of those questions seems to be, “Who’s going to pay for it?” and I’ve not heard any very compelling new answers to the question lately.

Unfortunately, there’s still at least two strands of conversation that seem impossible to avoid at thee events, one cyberskeptic and one tech-utopian. The cyberskeptic strand is insistent on reminding us that blogging won’t replace journalism, that very little blogging is journalism and that we must continue training professional journalists. All true, but this argument often misses the point that the bloggers who do engage in journalism are often our best hope for high-quality, insightful, profesional journalism in the future, and that there need not be a wall between the two worlds. Many newspapers seem to be getting this, incorporating staff and citizen blogs into their coverage, and it surprises me that this conversation continues at these sorts of events. (Then again, maybe I’m too optimistic. Mark Glaser’s latest column suggests that journalists may be fleeing newsrooms because change isn’t happening fast enough.)

My other surprise is how powerful tech evangelists can be at these events and how little skepticism there is about future tech in the journalism world. Coming from the tech world, I’m acutely aware that there are millions of geeks who want nothing more than to create The Next Big Thing… and the vast majority of these NBTs are neither next nor big. I think there’s a ongoing sense of shell-shock in the newspaper business from the ways in which technological innovation has changed business models and threatened the world as we know it. If Craigslist could destroy the classified business, what could Second Life do to us? The semantic web? QT codes? Obviously we’ve got to start using all this stuff RIGHT NOW before we get left in the dust again. I’m speculating, of course, but that’s the best explanation I can come up with for ideas like Esquire magazine’s hefty fiscal investment to add a BLINK tag to the September cover of their magazine.

This may explain why I’m so grateful for Mindy McAdams’s “get over it” post, listing ten “facts” about the future of newspapers, journalism and online media. The facts are not entirely without controversy, but they represent a helpful trend, in my opinion – an attempt to limit these discussions, take certain issues off the table and focus on questions where we don’t have good solutions. McAdams points to a pair of Ryan Sholin posts in the same spirit that I’d missed previously. We’re hosting a small conversation at Berkman tomorrow on business models for “difficult journalism” and I’m hoping we can start by agreeing on a large set of issues that are generally well-understood and no longer in need of discussion.

Clay Shirky offers a great example of this sort of thinking with a (fairly) recent piece that begins, “Nick Carr is right. Now what?” Carr is a provocative commentator who gets a lot of things right, including his observation that newspapers don’t currently know how to pay for high-quality journalism with web-based advertising. (This is one of McAdams’s facts as well.) Clay’s “now what?” includes a specific challenge – figure out how to pay for investigative journalism. But he’s got a general question that’s more important: what are the important bits of newspapers we want to save in an era where content is increasingly “unbundled”? More to the point, what are the bits that need saving, that are difficult for amateurs to build or unlikely to be built in the absence of professional intervention?

Investigative journalism is one of fields that I’m not convinced that bloggers are going to solve all by ourselves. While there are some good examples of bloggers adding key technical expertise to a story – Rathergate springs to mind – and cases where bloggers have broken substantial stories – TPM’s work on the Attorney General firings – there’s a lot to be said for a newsroom of paid reporters backed by toothy lawyers when you’re trying to document NSA wiretapping, for instance. This sort of reporting requires long-term commitment, the ability for multiple reporters to interview hundreds of sources, a legal department that can respond in court to obstacles to transparency, and sometimes shield laws to protect authors from having to reveal sources. As much as I’d like to see a smarter shield law that protects everyone who’s doing journalism, I think there’s a good chance that we’re going to need professional newsrooms to perform investigative journalism for years to come. It will be interesting to see whether efforts like Spot.Us, which tries to raise community funds for in-depth community journalism, will be able to sponsor this sort of reporting.

Also high on my list of things to save is well-contextualized international news. It’s possible these days to read most people’s local newspapers. It’s much harder to understand them. Language isn’t the only issue – reading a story in a local newspaper generally assumes local context. And what’s interesting to a local audience can be much less interesting to an international one… and vice versa. (Lots more about this here.) To write about truly important international issues, it’s sometimes critical to have more than just local perspectives – you need a reporter who can weave together stories and examples from different parts of the world. Needless to say, this takes resources – most people don’t have the luxury of roaming the world to report complex stories. And the sorts of collaboration neccesary to tell stories from multiple points of view is possible in amateur efforts, but not very well developed yet.

Two more that might be less obvious: agenda-setting and serendipity. I’m increasingly convinced that we want to preserve two of the functions of the front page of the newspaper. (This is not the same thing as preserving the front page of the newspaper.) One of the functions of the front page is to tell you what basic news you need to be an engaged and informed citizen that day. Another is to offer you introductions to stories that aren’t required knowledge, but might intersect with your interests. I think there’s a general suspicion of these functions of the paper, because they require human editing and gatekeeping. But I also think they’re something we discard at our own risk – see posts on serendipity and the architecture of newspapers for more thoughts on why.

Those four functions are far from an exhaustive list. What do you think we should save from the current vision of the newspaper, and how do we save it?

4 Responses to “Saving sections of the daily newspaper”

  1. Don Marti says:

    We need to figure out a way to keep paying the local, state, and federal reporters who know how to read budgets and explain the year-to-year changes clearly, fairly, and accurately.

    (If newspapers want to quit staffing the “Margarine is good for you”/”Margarine is bad for you” beat, that’s fine with me.)

  2. Alanna says:

    Almost always, the value that bloggers and citizen media can add to the news is context. They can discuss, deepend, critique, and explain content. I don’t think that their value is in breaking or reporting news so much as improving the informational value of that news. Of course, we’re completely hollow if we lose that original news source.

  3. “What do you think we should save from the current vision of the newspaper, and how do we save it?”

    Arts criticism, and serious cultural coverage, written by professional critics able to build up a wide and deep knowledge of their respective fields over many years–which means paying them comfortably and investing in their consumption of books/exhibitions/performances.

    There are lots of amazing arts blogs, many of them written by critics who are amateurs in the literal sense (unpaid). But acquiring the body of knowledge and experience and expertise that the best critics draw on is a slow and sometimes expensive process. And though there’s no shortage of well-funded scholars working on every conceivable form of cultural production within the academy, issuing a vast stream of monographs and articles, that’s a very different mode of thinking and writing from what goes into writing serious, intelligent, but accessible arts criticism for a wide non-specialist audience. (I’m trying to remember who it was that said book reviewing is the primary mechanism for conveying ideas from the academy into the outside world.)

    Scott McLemee, a superb literary critic himself, describes newspapers’ support of this kind of criticism as a “debt of honour”:

    http://insidehighered.com/views/2008/07/23/mclemee

    Which is a moving but not very compelling argument; he’s preaching to the choir here. (For the record: do-re-mi.)

    There’s a lot of discussion of the decline of book reviewing etc. at the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass:

    http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/

    But much of the argument follows the “debt of honour” line. More practically, I suspect one way forward is to clearly reposition arts criticism as an artform in itself that deserves strong support from the same institutions–whether foundations or corporate donors or private philanthropists–that fund galleries and residencies and non-profit presses etc.

    It would be a huge pity, though, for this kind of arts coverage to be hived off to specialist sites or publications. This goes back to your serendipity idea. In a big newspaper that still takes cultural coverage seriously, let’s say the NY Times, it’s entirely possible that an eye-catching headline or photo in the arts section will manage to stop someone leafing through to the sports or business section–and perhaps for that reader open a window, even just a chink, to something new.

    And the bigger question, of course–or one of them–is: what do we believe a well-informed, well-rounded citizen ought to be interested in, or ought to know about? Remember Arthur Miller’s notion of a newspaper as “a nation talking to itself”. Is it still possible to conceive of a single, vast conversation of this kind? Was it ever really possible?

  4. Kate says:

    For the record, I work for a daily paper, and you’re making me think about what I value in it.

    I agree with Nicholas Laughlin that focus and background are part of context — that in order to give the kind of clear and accurate and informed assessment several people have brought up here, a writer often needs institutional memory. This is the kind of vital investment that’s extremely hard to document: knowing people, trends, histories.

    I work with two arts and features editors who have held their jobs for thirty years. They know every artistic director’s philosophies and successes and failures and probably dental records. It takes time and financial support to build up that kind of knowledge. it also takes focus and persistence.

    A group of people, with different focuses, can create still more context, because they overlap and balance each other.

    There’s also distribution. In my relatively developed town, a lot of the population has more access to a fifty cent newspaper than to a regular internet connection. It’s changing; but our printing press still lets me reach more people, more quickly, than our page of blogs.

    There’s authority. This too is changing, and it varies from place to place, but people in my community clearly believe that it is my job, and my colleagues’ jobs, to speak for them. I hear it daily. And in turn, they will very often speak to us. Being able to walk up to anyone and say ‘will you talk to me’ and know that they have reason to want to is one of the great perks of this job.

    Web logs gain authority too, both individually and in groups. The distinction I think I’m making is that the U.S. has a set of laws and codes and expectations about journalism, and our current disillusionment hasn’t done away with them. Stories should have at least two sources, to give balance. Godd reporters look for all sides, and they’re supposed to answer their phones if they screw up and let you yell at them… they are answerable to their communities; they become public property.

    Blogs may be, at least in their conception, inherently the work of an individual and answerable first to their writer — private property. This can change, is changing, I think.

    I’ve lived in the newspaper world a long time, when I count on my fingers. I’ll tell you simply, There are parts of it I value, the way I value the structure of old town meetings and the talk in coffee shops and local historians and poets. And dairy farms. Things change. But I hope whatever the new media turns out to be, it won’t lose the work of knowing the neighbors and talking face to face.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 07/28/2008 - [...] …My heart’s in Accra » Saving sections of the daily newspaper [...]
  2. …My heart’s in Accra » Polymeme and distributed agenda-setting - [...] or “people who believe that informed citizens are important in a democracy” - should try to save from daily …
  3. Polymeme and Distributed Agenda-Setting | The Green House Effect - [...] or “people who believe that informed citizens are important in a democracy” - should try to save from daily …

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