All the talk about online newspapers starting to charge for access became louder recently when David Simon, creator of The Wire wrote an essay about how the New York Times and Washington Post should both value their content and start charging simultaneously. (See, for example, John Gruber’s and Dave Winer’s responses.) I sympathise with Simon and would love to share his vision of a press worth saving but, as a reader, his vision is of a fantasy world.
Of course, as he says, there are valuable things newspapers do. The day-to-day detailed reporting of what’s going on is useful and the occasional original investigative work probably rights some wrongs. But does this make up for everything else?
Is it worth the sensationalism and scaremongering? The endlessly inaccurate and dangerous science reporting? The pointless and news-free lifestyle articles? Do newspapers that prioritise stories based on celebrities and spectacle rather than importance to the world deserve to exist?
Simon isn’t alone of course. Journalists often seem to be banging on about how the mighty press should be saved. I recently went to an interesting talk by Manuel Castells and one of the people asking a question (or, rather, making their own laboured point) at the end was a journalist who was worried about the threat of bloggers and onlinecitizen journalists, etc.
They’re not a threat. Stop worrying about them. There are few, if any, people doing real journalism off their own back and publishing it unpaid on their own sites. Good journalism is, I imagine, often dull, laborious, unglamorous and time-consuming. There are new ways that journalism is happening online — churning through datasets and utilising the collected knowledge of thousands of people — but this is something new and extra, it’s not individuals taking over the jobs of journalists.
That is, they’re not taking over the jobs of real journalists, those who do the good and important work. If you’re a “journalist” who writes ill-researched articles on things you don’t understand, or content-free celebrity puff-pieces, or worthless lifestyle articles based on a few of your friends, then you should be worrying. Anyone can do that crap, and they’ll do it for free. But no, if you’re a hard-working, serious journalist who’s doing the difficult unglamorous stuff, bloggers probably aren’t your biggest threat.
The threat to real journalists and their precious newspapers are these other “journalists” and much of the content of the same newspapers. For every exposé of governmental misdeeds and investigation of corporate wrongdoing and expensive international story filed by an experienced reporter there are inaccurate, unimportant, trivial, overblown and worthless articles written by people who reduce the perceived value of newspapers to close to zero. Again, anyone can write this crap, and padding out your newspapers with it makes them seem less valuable, not more.
I expect Simon would put the blame for this lack of quality at the door of bosses cutting costs and trimming staff. But, really? Maybe things are worse now than they used to be, but have they ever been good? Was there ever a time when newspapers — even the “quality” press — were full of nothing but accurate, informative and important articles?
My memory doesn’t go far back, but I first noticed how dangerous and wrong newspapers could be in 1996 when the Observer declared the owner of a UK ISP to be virtually a pedophile for supplying a Usenet feed to customers. It was the first time I, apparently, knew more about a subject (the Internet!) than a journalist. If I know they’re wrong about this, I thought, what about all the articles on other subjects that I take at face value? Since then stories about the net that have made it into the main news sections have done little to reassure me.
It feels like newspapers have had their chance. I’m not convinced they were ever as good as Simon and journalists think they were or are. Just like peoples’ feelings that music and TV were always better when they were young, only the good stuff sticks in our memories.
Maybe newspapers are even worse now than they once were. Will they get better? It seems unlikely. The good and unique stuff — investigative reporting, international news — is expensive and advertising revenue falling and an audience unwilling to pay isn’t going to help. Maybe there’s a small but dedicated market for a streamlined, focused, serious newspaper that only does the good stuff, for a high cover price. But I can’t see newspapers generally ever being as good as Simon wants them to be or thinks they once were.