Voice of Reason: All the news that’s fit to print

February 29, 2012

It turns out that after spending a weekend at a conference discussing newspapers and sitting down to write a column the week afterward, I find that I have a strange compulsion to write about newspapers. Luckily for me and my unusual affliction, there is a lot worth writing about.

What is the role of the newspaper in today’s world? Is there one? Are they archaic relics of a bygone era or highly relevant cultural touchstones?

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quip, reports of the death of newspapers have been greatly exaggerated. Here we are in 2012, over a decade into the Internet Age, at a time when our cell phones have the ability to access more information than is contained in entire libraries, and still the newspaper stubbornly hangs on. There have been a few high-profile losses, most famously the Rocky Mountain News, but far fewer than it seems there should have been.

That’s because media doesn’t tend to go away when new formats appear. Video did not, in fact, kill the radio star any more than the Internet killed television. Rather, the appearance of new formats tends to cause a shift in what the older formats do.

For example, faced with the increasing might of television during the ‘50s and ‘60s, radio simply reinvented itself. Serial dramas were things that obviously worked better on the screen, so they were junked in favor of more music and talk shows that can be listened to in cars or offices, where television is less useful. Each found their niche, and the media environment was better off because of it.

What then, can a newspaper do that no other format can? At their most basic level, they can exist. One shouldn’t discount the value of being able to hold something in your hand. People used to save newspapers that came out on important days so that they could always remember. There are probably thousands of newspapers still being kept commemorating the first moon landing. How many cnn.com printouts do you think that there will be on the day of the first landing on Mars?

But it goes beyond that. Hegel once commented that the morning newspaper was the modern man’s equivalent of morning prayer. When you’re reading a newspaper, you’re part of a larger cultural institution that is, in some senses, like a church. Everyone gets the same physical paper, no matter who you are. That has a unifying effect that the Internet doesn’t fully capture.

The Web, in its quest to tailor itself ever more perfectly to what you desire, runs the substantial risk of throwing us all into atomized news cocoons. If everyone experiences the news differently, I think American democracy would be worse off. Looking around at the problems in America today, it’s difficult to conclude that many of them are caused by the fact that we just have too much in common.

Albert Hunt, an editor for Bloomberg News, wrote in the aftermath of the initial wave of bank bailouts in 2009 that as important as the health of AIG and Bank of America is, the collapse of major newspapers such as The New York Times, “may more profoundly affect the destiny of the U.S.”

The central concern is that web-based journalism may not be up to the task of fulfilling its role as democracy’s “Fourth Estate”, which is to say, being the watchdog of government. Hunt cites Alex Jones, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, who estimates that as much as 85 percent of what we consider to be news originates in print journalism.

Now, while that proportion seems fishy to me, we shouldn’t let it distract us from the more important issue. Much of Internet journalism now is mere aggregation and commentary on what traditional news services are still uncovering. Some scandals do break out when something incriminating finds its way online, but many more important stories require far more digging, digging that newspaper journalists have been far more eager to do than anybody else.

Another critical area where newspapers are needed is for reporting on developments overseas. One of the biggest casualties in the wave of cutbacks that have roiled the news business in the past decades has been foreign reporting. Big national papers such as the Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe have entirely slashed their foreign bureaus and now rely on wire report or reporting from sister papers that still have overseas staffs.

Colin McMahon, who is in charge of organizing foreign news for the Tribune, has said that this has meant fewer front page stories from abroad, not to mention far fewer human interest stories from overseas that can provide the story behind the headlines. That means an America where foreign affairs discussions are even more based on visceral, dramatic events and less on the context behind them, an Iran only defined by its nuclear program, for example, or a Russia represented only by Vladimir Putin’s latest speech — hardly anything that is going to put America where it needs to be in a rapidly globalizing world.

Listening to renowned journalist Robin Wright talk this week at Knox about her experiences reporting in the Middle East since the 70s couldn’t help but make me wonder how many other Robin Wrights are never going to get that chance, since no one can afford to pay them to write about foreign affairs. As Jodi Enda of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting put it quite bluntly, “Foreign bureaus were not replaced by new technology. They were not replaced at all.”

It is possible that Internet journalism is going to eventually become capable of picking up the slack. What is certain is that nothing of the sort will happen anytime in the near future. When will the Huffington Post or Politico be ready to send war correspondents into battle? Or even staff foreign bureaus? This seems to be a question that few can answer and perhaps no one is ever all that concerned about asking.

Though you are no doubt shocked to read this in a newspaper, the answer to my original question is yes, newspapers are still relevant. Internet news has a place, and an important one at that, but it is never going to be a perfect replacement. The place of the newspaper in society will probably shrink and morph, but like Monty Python’s infamous peasant, it’s not dead yet.

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