Maybe newspapers aren’t worth saving after all

In response to a long, righteous article in the New Republic about why the decline of newspaper is going to be bad for democracy, ex-journalist Dan Conover holds forth:

Goose a few newspaper journalists these days and they’re likely to exclaim something about why Americans should care about saving their industry. And it’s likely to sound something like this: “Without us protecting the public as investigative watchdogs, government corruption is going to run amok!”

Which might be a compelling point, were it not for five little things:

1. Watchdogging government is hardly the primary purpose of modern newspapers (it doesn’t even make the Top Three in most outfits), and if Watchdogging ever interferes with Job No. 1 (generating double-digit profit margins for shareholders), Watchdogging is right out;
2. Few newspaper “watchdog” reports are based primarily on original research;
3. Newspaper editors, for all their posturing about government openness, have roughly zero interest in opening up their own processes and decision-making to public inspection;
4. The amount of resources devoted to truly investigative, power-challenging, applecart-upsetting, potentially unpopular stories at the average American newspaper is likely dwarfed by the comics page budget;
5. And finally, this argument assumes without evidence that even if my objections were untrue, newspapers would still be the appropriate place for this important societal function. […]

Ever wonder who does most of the public-policy grunt work in America? For the good guys, it’s typically underpaid crusaders at civic-minded non-profit groups, people who care about clean water and safe food and healthy children other such left-wing nonsense. Newspapers count on these scruffy muckrackers, even though they typically distance themselves from their “radical” agendas.

The bad guys, like the American Petroleum Institute, or, say Envron, hire platoons of well-groomed lobbyists, experts and public-relations specialists to sell their stories. And even though they are deliberately engaged in distorting the truth to protect their interests, these people are treated as respectable, credible media sources.

Much of what passes for watchdog investigative reporting is based on studies conducted by these pesky non-profits, or by anonymous government underlings in some state auditor’s office, or the federal GAO, and so on. They produce the proof, editors build stories around their findings, and each year on press awards night, some reporters get plaques that credit them with the whole enterprise.

Is there newspaper reporting, investigative or otherwise, that takes on a public-policy issue and challenges ruling orthodoxy without a boost from an interest group? Probably. But newspapers generally refuse to poke the status-quo without being able to cite some interest group for raising the issue. Wanna know why? Because the status quo is where the money and power are. Do the math.

One final thing about this weird dance of newspaper reporters and watchdog groups. In the old days, each benefited. Today, the only thing the newspaper gives the watchdog is greater exposure — not the ability to publish, not the credibility to contact influencers and decision-makers. What newspaper people won’t tell you is that their value to the original institutional watchdoggers is declining. Rapidly. […]

These systemic failures do nothing to limit government corruption. Rather, the first-hand knowledge of how easy it is to warp press coverage and spin public opinion has the opposite effect. Through our sloppy standards and the overarching greed of our corporate paymasters, my former profession has encouraged generations of corporate and governmental sleaze. We didn’t watchdog President Bush’s claims about WMDs. We didn’t take seriously the voices that had been warning for years about the impending collapse of the subprime mortgage market. If your local newspaper gives the mayor’s denials of proven but complex facts equal weight with the facts themselves, then your city hall is likely rife with sleek, smug injustice. And so on.

Full Story:

(via Jay Rosen)

I’d previously written about the need to save professional media – not necessarily established newspapers – here. This definitely makes the case that the role of the big established news organization is a lot less important than we might think.

I used two examples: The Chicago Tribune‘s coverage of the Jena 6 and the New Yorker‘s immigrant detention centers. In the case of the former, regional bloggers covered the case until it got the attention of the Tribune’s Howard Witt, who went to Jena and did a story and managed to get it on the national radar. In the case of the latter, it’s still not a widely known issue and I imagine it was actually pretty heavily researched by advocacy groups before the NYer.

So really the main things that bloggers are missing is perceived legitimacy and authority of the establishment media: the power to make what advocacy groups or local or regional bloggers say matter. The establishment media completely failed the public on two most important issues facing us today: the pretense for the Iraq War, and the economic meltdown. Hundreds of bloggers were debunking the Iraq War claims as they were being made, and at least a few (Billmon for example) were warning us about the subprimes. If only anyone had listened.

They have been abject failures on one of the other most important issues of our time: the drug war. Gary Webb‘s career was ruined for exposing the CIA’s complacency in drug running. Today, the best journalism on that beat is coming from an online source: Narco News.

In other words: maybe we really are better off without them after all.

1 Comment

  1. Absolutely, yes. Hopefully TV news will be in a similar situation soon.

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