Death of news revisited

How much news should a good citizen consume?  I venture to guess:  none.  The increasingly fevered noise being broadcast by the networks and cable channels probably decreases the average person’s ability to decide on public issues.

How about newspapers?  Howell Raines once edited the NYT, which probably shares with BBC the prestige prize in news production.  He was fired for reasons that don’t reflect well on the news business, but he remains loyal.  He fears a rape of the Gray Lady by some Rupert Murdoch-like “pirate,” and he proclaims:  “I believe a Murdoch takeover of our last independent newspaper would be a disaster for the trustworthy reporting on which our civic life depends.”

The Sulzbergers, who own the majority stock in the NYT, are “public spirited,” Raines insists, and “one of the most admired publishing families ever.”

Why does our civic life depend on the NYT‘s “trustworthy reporting?”  A great many assumptions go into that one statement of faith.  The first is received from Plato, by way of Walter Lippmann:  only a few noble souls can stare at truth and not wilt.  The second follows from the first:  ordinary people are on no account to be allowed to inform themselves.  They must be shown truth by Those Who Know.

NYT reporters are trustworthy in this sense:  they don’t stray far from received stereotypes and platitudes.  They are defenders of the faith.  Otherwise, the trustworthiness of the paper can be best judged from the incident that resulted in Raines’ dismissal.

Similarly, the NYT is independent in the special sense that it rejects most of the notions ordinary Americans hold right and true.  But it is by no means alone:  every other news provider, print and broadcast, partakes of this kind of independence, some even more egregiously so than the rather dowdy NYT.

Raines’ anxieties focus on the business peril of his former employer.  In this he is right to worry:  like them or loathe them, newspapers are a doomed business model, and the NYT, despite its famous brand name, can’t buck reality.  Ads are fleeing the dead tree product, and not moving to the digital version.  Craigs List, the free online advertiser, ranks ninth in US traffic.  The online NYT, which asks for money, ranks twenty-ninth.  Which of the two would an advertiser choose?

No ads, no bucks — no newspapers.  Simple.

Take a look at this report, from a site worth studying at length:  State of the news media, 2008.  Ad money for US papers of all types was down 5.2 percent in the first nine months of 2007, on top of a 2.4 percent decline in 2006.  “These longer-term numbers,” the report broods, “give a sense that the end of newspapers as prepackaged parcels delivered to our doorsteps may not be far off.”

Newspapers are just the canary in the mineshaft for news writ large.  If one croaks, the other will follow.  The overview on the “State of the news media” site makes this explicit enough, and offers an interesting, if partly flawed, interpretation.

The state of the American news media in 2008 is more troubled than a year ago.

And the problems, increasingly, appear to be different than many experts have predicted.

Critics have tended to see technology democratizing the media and traditional journalism in decline. Audiences, they say, are fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites. Some people even advocate the notion of “The Long Tail,” the idea that, with the Web’s infinite potential for depth, millions of niche markets could be bigger than the old mass market dominated by large companies and producers.

The reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists.2

Certainly consumers have different expectations of the press and want a changed product.

But more and more it appears the biggest problem facing traditional media has less to do with where people get information than how to pay for it — the emerging reality that advertising isn’t migrating online with the consumer. The crisis in journalism, in other words, may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising.

Let’s reflect on this assessment.

I tend to agree that the new digital media shouldn’t be considered “democratic” (though how to demonstrate this either way, I’m not sure).  Instead, consider it competition — vast amounts of it, in images, video, text.  Consider it an almost infinite variety of choice in the consumption of reports, opinions, entertainment, advertising.

Given such abundance, it’s curious for the author of the overview to say that the “crisis in journalism . . . may not strictly be loss of audience.”  The loss is that of a captive audience:  a strategic disaster.  The guardians of the truth can no longer impose it on the rabble.  We have choices, and increasingly we opt out.

We come to a fundamental puzzle, which the overview doesn’t touch:  what is news?  How do we tell news from non-news?  The answer should link back to our original question about the amount of news needed to make a good citizen.

Any attempt to categorize news will end up chasing its own tail.  News is what news purveyors sell.  We know it’s news because they tell us so.  The distinction isn’t a what but a who.  And in the new informational universe, that corner of it which the news purveyors call news has become ever smaller in relative terms.  According to Alexa’s rankings, only two of the top 50 websites in the US are news sites.  (The NYT, we saw, was one at 29.)

The good citizen may need information — though of what kind, and to what level of depth, no one I am aware of has bothered to explain.  But informational bondage to the NYT and the likes of Howell Raines strikes me as the opposite of good citizenship:  and true independence in access to information can only be problematic to those who once imagined themselves to be guardians over the people, and now watch the people desert them at the first hint of choice.

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