Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The final word on the death of newspapers?

Some sort of secret signal went out, and everyone and their neighbor has posted a “death of newspapers” story since the beginning of the year, myself included. Polymeme, which is increasingly my go-to, first thing in the morning read, has listed at least a dozen stories this month, and their “media” tag includes roughly 50% crisis stories.

Rather than offering a taxonomy of depressing media stories, I’d prefer to point to the best of the bunch, a piece in the New Republic by Professor Paul Starr. Starr won the Pulitzer for his brilliant “The Creation of the Media“, which tracks the emergence of newspapers, telegraphs and radio in the US, England and Europe, and he’s got a historical perspective on media issues that many of the other authors opining – myself included – lack.

Starr offers the argument that the newspaper as the authoritative source for the media we need to participate in a democratic society may have had their moment in history. Starr sees papers as critical market intermediaries, matching buyers and sellers in specific localities. That market logic led them beyond just covering news to cover softer topics like arts and sports, hoping to broaden their audience, and led directly to a shift away from partisan journalism and towards standards of journalistic objectivity. (If you’re going to function as an effective market-maker, it’s no good to alienate half the population that doesn’t share your political views.)

While newspapers held this intermediary position – and especially when they were monopolies – they could hardly avoid making money. (Had Starr attempted to analyze the finances of my local newspaper, as I did some weeks back, he would have been unsurprised that the paper charged steep, monopoly rents to local advertisers, and probably would be unsurprised that the paper – independent of the corporate apparatus that supports it – is profitable.) But the Internet is the great disintermediator, and eventually it will no longer be possible to cross-subsidize public interest journalism with classified ads and four-color grocery store fliers.

Starr’s worry, like mine, is on the future of “difficult journalism” – deep investigative work focused on state capitals, on city finances and on international coverage. His worry – as politicians and businesspeople understand that the press is no longer watching, it becomes more tempting to bend the rules. Hence, his subtitle: “Hello to a New Era of Corruption”.

I’m particularly gratified to see Starr focus on something I’ve been thinking of as “the problem of choice”, noting that we read news differently online and offline. Starr believes that we’re losing something when we stop reading offline and primarily read online – we are less likely to have the same knowledge as our neighbors and more likely to become ideologically polarized:

Online, by contrast, [news consumers] do not necessarily see what would be front-page news in their city, and so they are likely to become less informed about news and politics as the reading of newspapers drops. On the other hand, just as more partisan viewers have more to watch on cable than on network television, so partisans have more to read and to discuss online than in the typical local newspaper. As a result, to the extent that the Internet replaces newspapers as a source of news, it may add to the tendencies that Prior has identified–greater disparities in knowledge between news dropouts and news junkies, as well as greater ideological polarization in both the news-attentive public and the news media.

Ultimately, Starr declares news to be a “public good”, both in the sense that it’s a neccesity for a participatory society and in the sense that it is a non-rivalrous good (if you read a news story, you don’t prevent me from reading it as well.) He notes that public goods are notoriously hard to produce, and that the temptation is to ask governments to do it for us. The downside, obviously, is that this makes it very difficult to cover a government critically. Starr sides with those who see non-profit models for journalism, but not without a great deal of caution and concern. Mostly, his prediction is that the newspaper as we know it – the main arbiter of what is and isn’t news in a particular location at a particular time – is gone and no one is sure what’s going to replace it.

Not happy news, by any means, but better argued and structured that any of the other essays on the topic I’ve read.


While there’s no shortage of folks drafting eulogies for the newspaper, no one has told the geeks who work inside newspapers. I doubt that the NYTimes techies were reacting to my rant about the architecture of serendipity, and the ways in which the paper frontpage forces serendipity, they’ve rolled out a very clever article skimmer. It doesn’t provide quite as much “bait” to hook you on a story as front-page blurbs do, but vastly more than the online edition does. And it’s got all sorts of clever keyboard commands that make browsing easier.

It’s possible that the NYTimes geeks may not be the folks who figure out how to unlock the potential of that remarkable newsgathering organization. The Times has released a collection of developer APIs, allowing access to very useful widgets, like the Times People pages. The examples offered of what one can do with these tools are pretty weak at present, but I know that I’ve printed out the API documentation and am sleeping with it under my pillow in the hopes of coming up with an innovative new ap.

It’s not just US newspapers that are innovating. My friend Mohamed Nanabhay of Al Jazeera talks to the Journalism.co.uk blog about technical innovation at the Qatar news company. Al Jazeera is sharing video content with the Independent newspaper in the UK, releasing lots of material under Creative Commons and partnering with Ushahidi to visualize violence during the recent Gaza conflict. Most folks in the US, I find, misunderstand Al Jazeera so badly that they won’t look to the company for journalistic innovation, which is a shame, as Mohamed and his team are one of the groups that understands that media companies need to break disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to deliver news around the world.

One Response to “The final word on the death of newspapers?”

  1. Ida says:

    Thanks for the breakdown of Starr’s argument. His books on my to-read list now. I talked to some folks who attended the Time’s conference last Friday. It was hard to glean how these tools will impact news consumption, not to mention news production. I’ve been watching the documentary photography community go into spasms as support for long term work dries up. Starr’s analysis, rooted in the impact that economics played in news production, paints a dismal pictures but might at least be a useful mode of inquiry for supporting content that is slow or difficult to make a profit on.

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