It’s no news that the American news business is in flux and in trouble. The powerful newspapers and giant networks that dominated journalism in the last half of the 20th century have fragmented into shards of new media, blogs, social media, and websites seemingly tailored for every possible taste.
The journalistic past is all but dead, but the future is barely glimpsed. Technology drives this transformation, and the technology itself evolves daily. What’s left are two huge questions:
- Who’s going to pay for and buy the journalism of the future?
- What does this mean for democracy and the nation?
There’s a reason. The founders knew that democracy depends on an informed electorate. Universal suffrage is meaningless if voters don’t have the facts to cast an informed ballot. The press did the informing. Without it, democracy dies.
So what now?
Journalists are great navel-gazers and the debate over the profession’s future rages in universities, trade magazines, talk shows, and anywhere, including bars, where they gather. A good summary of all this trade talk appeared recently on Politico, itself a new-journalism spinoff specializing in politics, where the editor, Susan Glasser, interviewed two towering figures of the old journalism—Bill Keller, former editor of The New York Times, and Marcus Brauchli, former editor of The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Not long ago, both would have stayed on newspapers until retirement: both now are part of new media. You can read the interview here.
Both Keller and Brauchli are first-rate journalists committed to the profession and its mission. Both emerged relatively optimistic. But they’re inside the Beltway and I’m not: the interview left me worried about the answers to those two big questions above.
Keller predicted that “the good stuff will survive…There are people who need good journalism, who want good journalism, who are willing to pay for good journalism.” What’s more, he said, the supply is getting broader every day: he said he reads the BBC and the Financial Times, apart from The New York Times and the Journal, and then goes on to check special Russian and South Africa sites. All this provides so much journalism at the click of a mouse that “I can’t honestly say that the fact The Baltimore Sun and the Dallas papers or the Denver paper no longer have foreign bureaus is a loss.”
Brauchli agreed that there’s no reason for regional papers, in Chicago or Denver, to have their own Washington correspondents because the Washington Post can cover this news quite nicely: “the audience didn’t need two versions of the same story.”
This makes sense—for news junkies like Keller and Brauchli who have the time and knowledge to access sites around the world, or the money to subscribe to the Financial Times, or homes in places where The New York Times is sold on the street corner, or the willingness to go to the work of keeping up with the news, or the ability to access the Washington Post site to find out what their local paper isn’t telling them any more.
This is the problem. Citizenship is hard work. Staying on top of the world’s news takes time and effort. These days it takes imagination. It takes knowledge and discrimination to wade through the mountain of trivia available on the web and find the really solid sites. It takes some expertise to judge facts and opinions on subjects where most readers lack that expertise.
Keller and Brauchli can do it. So can you, if you have the time and drive and knowledge and money to do it. But most people don’t, which is why I came away from this interview pessimistic about the future of democracy.
Until recently, your local papers and the network evening news did this job for you. Those of us who worked on a newspaper knew that that was probably the only paper you would read, so we made sure it touched all bases—not only the comics and sports scores but foreign news, Washington news, business news, city news. We felt an obligation to make it as fair and objective as possible—an unobtainable goal, perhaps, but we really did try. Journalists who were experts in arcane subjects, from science to economics, knew they were writing for non-experts, so made their writing as clear as possible.
Mostly, we made it relatively easy—and cheap—to keep up with the news. If you read one newspaper every day, you probably knew enough about public affairs to cast that informed vote come election day.
And now? The business model that paid for that comprehensive coverage has collapsed. Newspapers are thinner. Lacking foreign correspondents or Washington bureaus, they run less foreign and government news. They can always pick up a story from the Associated Press or the Washington Post, but neither covers the news with the reader in Denver or Dallas—or Des Moines or Detroit—in mind.
For most people, money is tight—too tight to afford that subscription to the Financial Times or New York Times. Time is short, too—so short that many people have given up reading newspapers altogether and are getting their news, so-called, from the screaming heads on Fox News or MSNBC. CNN, the one really balanced cable news station, is so obsessed with the vanished Malaysian airliner that it no longer even pretends to tell its viewers what they really need to know.
(There is still one national news outlet, technically free, that does a first-rate job of coverage. NPR covers the nation and the world: regular listeners know what’s going on. Yes, you don’t have to pay for it, but a small pledge now and then is a small price to pay for this guardian of democracy.)
It’s democracy that is at stake. We hear a lot about inequality in wealth or income or education. What we have now is inequality in information. Up in the top five or 10 percent are the truly well-informed—Bill Keller and Marcus Brauchli and the rest of a minority with the money and smarts to buy or access the news around the world—while a growing majority relies on a cash-strapped local paper or a risible cable news show. Too many give up and get no news at all.
Then, on election day, they vote. There are many reasons for the debacle in Washington, but one stands out: too many of our representatives are elected by voters who don’t know what they’re doing.