Thursday, December 18, 2008

Time For Readers To Bail Out Journalists

Richard Perez-Pena sums up the crisis facing journalism and democracy. In 2000, Cox Newspapers had 30 journalists in Washington, filing copy for 17 newspapers, including dailies in Atlanta and Austin. On April 1, the bureau will close. A year ago, papers owned by the bankrupt Tribune Co., including the LA Times, had 70 in their combined Washington bureau; today, it's 32. Papers are also closing foreign bureaus.

They can still buy coverage from news services such as the Associated Press. But like all news services, it's almost completely dependent on the overall health of the newspaper business. Five years ago, it was interesting that people were going to Yahoo to read AP content. Five years from now, unless an alternative financial model can be found to pay for its team of editors and reporters, there may not be an AP.

Assisted by reporter Jacques Steinberg, Perez-Pena puts his finger on the problem:

“I think the cop is leaving the beat here, and I think it’s a terrible loss for citizens,” said Andy Alexander, the Cox bureau chief, who is retiring.

Most hackosphere content on this vital subject misses the point, probably because its denizens' veneration of digital media borders on the idolatrous. It's not that printed newspapers are being made obsolete by on-line sources, since the latter depend umbilically on the former. If you want well-reported editorial content, the best sources are still web sites and blogs supported by printed media. Without papers' and magazines' advertising and circulation revenue, few blogs could offer any high-quality reported information, not because they don't mean well, but because such information comes from people who do it for a living.

Some blogs, such as "Politico," appear to do their own reporting. But could "Politico" support itself just through its on-line presence if demand for its printed edition dried up and Joe Allbritton's Capitol News Co. couldn't subsidize it? Where would the Atlantic Monthly Group's blogpen be without the printed magazine? As for newspaper sites, several tried to charge for access at first, but that's not the ethos of the 'net in which we've become entangled. In their wisdom, younger people, themselves sometimes objects of excessive veneration, have ruled that content should be free. Yet how many of the best news sites could survive -- supporting staffs with hundred of editorial workers -- with no revenue from their printed papers? My guess is none.

Some believe salvation is in the non-profit model, which so far only manages to pay reporters and editors what teachers make. A government bailout for news professionals? A U.S. version of China's all powerful Xinhua News Agency? You've got to be kidding.

It's time to be blunt about whose fault this is -- "Time"'s mid-1980s "Machine of the Year," the personal computer. Its radical re-framing of how people work, communicate, read, and ultimately think is imperiling our republic. Mr. and Mrs. PC have raised two generations of quintessentially American individualists who are systematically dumbing themselves down in the name of intellectual empowerment.

Vital and indispensable in every free society on earth are teams of editorial professionals who compile daily digests from around the world of what a citizen should know. Presumptuous, elitist, but time-tested. You may think you can do it yourself by visiting "The Daily Dish," "Slate," and "The Drudge Report." If so, you're wrong. You can't possibly know enough about the world to know what you need to be told each day! Besides, each of those sites, and almost every other news and commentary site -- not to mention each TV network -- depends in one way or another on old-fashioned newspaper and magazine reporting and editing. Such work is done not by bloggers sitting in Starbucks but by highly trained journalists, many of them specialists in the complex fields they cover, who are paid enough to call it a career, people who can put their kids through college and plan for their retirement, people being paid, say, $80,000 or more a year plus benefits.

Virtually all that money is still coming from the dying, circulation- and advertising-dependent paradigm. To replace it, journalists will have to find other ways to charge readers for content. It's that simple. I still think the answer is the Kindle and devices like it. If not, somebody had better think of something else quick. I would prefer if my news about what China will be getting up to in the next 30 years came from someone besides the State Department, the Ministry of Defense in Beijing, and Matthew Yglesias.

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