16 December 2009

The press.

Seldom does a week pass without an article in a newspaper or magazine about the fate of newspapers and magazines. Even beyond the obvious self-interest that partially motivates these stories, there is also a legitimate concern about what the American public needs as the circulations of periodicals continue to drop every year. As bloggers and online news organizations increasingly take over the task of reporting on events and producing commentary – the bread-and-butter of newspapers and magazines – there is worry about the future of the traditional media. No one worries about the fate of American pectorals without Men's Health and Fitness, but without a New York Times who will run the in-depth and powerful investigations into government or corporate misdeeds? Don't we need a press?

A recent article by David Grann in The New Yorker about a condemned man, Cameron Todd Willingham, can tell us why the press is essential. The article not only made America aware of the execution of an innocent man, and not only cast Texas Governor Steve Perry as a merciless fool, but actually changed the national dialog about the death penalty. While Willingham died and Perry survives, the way this masterfully-written article created a new discussion in America illustrates just how valuable the press can be to our society. Without The New Yorker, Willingham would just have been another man who died quietly and without justice.
So when the question is asked about whether we need a press, most people agree that we do. A row of talking heads tells each other about the immense value an independent and powerful press provides for a free society. And indeed, at its best the Fourth Estate holds our leaders and our businesses and our celebrities accountable, and raises and spurs public discussion about our problems. There are certain things that the modern press does that we desperately need.
This is an ideal view, of course. Often the pages of the local paper are filled by concerns of the bottom line; easy articles about unusual people or shallow reporting are far more frequent than shattering exposes of illegal government surveillance. The hard times make this worse and worse. As the major newspapers have had to lay off specialty reporters – such as science reporters or foreign correspondents – their articles have suffered an increasing lack of depth. One can hardly blame them, of course, but it's a bad signal that the greatest strength of the modern press is the aspect most badly hurt by its decline. It's a vicious cycle that suggests that there must be a future fundamental change.
So even though most people agree that some of the functions of the press are essential, few people agree on whether or not that means we should take action to save newspapers and magazines in their current form – or even if there are any actions we could take. The idea of a “newspaper bailout” is thrown around on occasion, usually mockingly, but more realistic are proposals to partially subsidize the press or pass laws of some kind to ensure broadsheet survival – even though such proposals are farcical with a moment's examination with an view of the resulting impartiality of a press that relies on government handouts. But with groups like the Murdoch group of newspapers deciding to retreat into a subscription-based online model to try to minimize the loss, there appears to be little hope for the survival of the media culture that has existed in America for a hundred years. What will replace it? What will we lose?

Before we explore that, it's worthwhile to look into the history of that media culture. Newspapers and magazines haven't always been the pillars of objective reporting and enlightening commentary that we idolize.
When newspapers first came into existence and for a long time afterward, they were the organs of specific groups. It was an established and accepted fact that one newspaper was the voice of the government, another was the voice of the socialists, and so on. While we might be accustomed to a world of “liberal bias” or “conservative bias” in our media, in point of fact this bias is almost nonexistent when compared to the papers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It can be amusing to look at the progress of the Moniteur, for example. This paper served as the newspaper of official record for France for many years. As royalists lost power in a dramatic way and were supplanted by the sans-culottes, the rhetoric of the Moniteur shifted accordingly. The villains of past rebellions were now heroes. And when the republicans were held hostage by the imperial power of Napoleon, the Moniteur changed its tune once more, striking the war drums and celebrating victories like Austerlitz breathlessly.
The newspapers of the same era in America were little different. Local newspapers were owned by bosses who had a certain point of view, and very often this point of view was apparent in every headline. The news reported by a Whig and the news reported by a Tory could be about the same event but with unrecognizable interpretations. It wasn't for decades that a new school of objective journalism and new values of journalistic ethics arose, gradually shamed reporters and editors into seeking an ever-more-stringent neutrality.
In the same way, magazines have evolved remarkably. Prior to the magazine boom of the late twentieth century, many magazines were little affairs, flitting into existence and vanishing in short order. They were not the long-running behemoths of the modern day. While the recent and tragic closing of such institutions as Gourmet and Modern Bride may have shocked a public used to them, they are by far the exception. An examination of the history of literary and commentary magazines will show that the great stories and shattering exposes came from periodicals of short life and no heritage. Ford Madox Ford's transatlantic review lasted only a short time and still managed to transform the face of modern literature.

Today, we pay lip service to objective reporting. The common wisdom and schools of journalism propose an idea of reporting where the facts are given with as much information and as little bias as possible. And while there's something to be said for that, it seems as though the common people don't really value the common wisdom. More and more people seek their news from online agencies that have an obvious bias.
The Drudge Report, for example, is a “news aggregator” that collects headlines from around the Web; while it's certainly driven by a profit motive above all, it also tends to promote articles that imply libertarian and conservative conclusions. On Drudge, a story about unusually cold temperatures in a city is almost certain to be adjacent to a story about global warming. A story about inflation worries will be given prominent placement along with a report on the increasing price of gold, while a report on suspected commodities fraud by a politician will probably not be sexy enough to even make the page. When we look at the increasing popularity and dominance of sites like Drudge and its liberal counterparts at The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, we can only conclude that while people say they want objective reporting, they really prefer to have their worldview confirmed.
The confirmation bias has long been known, of course. Scientists discovered long ago that people tend to pay attention to and seek out information that confirms their beliefs, rather than information that will challenge them. It contributes to widespread belief in UFOs and magical events, and it means that we seek out news that will tell us what we already know.
Given our previous history of strong biases in reporting – remember, objective reporting is relatively new – it is perhaps not surprising that the trend has returned in a big way. It shows no signs of relenting, appearing also in our television news as opinion shows become the dominant reporting vehicles on 24-hour news channels. And almost the entire newsradio market consists of conservatives telling conservatives things with which they will agree. By and large, the modern America wants to be agreed with by their newspapers and magazines, not challenged.

So what does this mean for the future of periodicals? While we may agree that there is value in certain things our modern magazines and newspapers do, such as in-depth investigative reporting, doesn't their decline mean that we just don't value them enough? With the current model is dying, will we lose the things we've gained from this century of objective reporting and massive magazines?
As one might guess, my answer is no. I think we will lose other magazines and other local papers, of course. That's unfortunate, but no one can force the public to want something they have proven they aren't interested in after long and repeated trial. Capitalism works best in a scenario like this: if a local newspaper can create a need for itself, then it will.
Existing newspapers and magazines will also shrink and change. As new models for the provision of news come into existence, with bloggers and citizen-journalists providing branded commentary and straight reporting, then newspapers and magazines will have to begin focusing on things that their organizations are best at and can do exclusively, like investigative journalism and access reporting. Some groups are leading the way and breaking this ground, such as the organization ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that has seen incredible success with sweeping investigative stories.
The world of newspapers and magazines is evolving. As with all evolution, some things will be lost and others will be changed. But the addition of Everyman's voice and boundless new technology is a good thing. For every closure like Gourmet or The Rocky Mountain News, there will be a ProPublica or a Slate to step in and provide news in a way we couldn't have imagined before. A new animal will walk, and all the better.

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