A democracy cannot function without a free press.
O.K., we know that, and you probably can’t see another word about it. The point of what follows is practical. We’re in this unbelievable business morass, an indescribable battlefield. How do we get out of it?
Contributing to this catastrophe has been newspapers’ stubborn refusal to consider any news-gathering and -analysis model other than the one that they were used to, one that, most crucially, relegated consumers to the role of passive readers instead of engaged users. It’s a mistake that happens all over the Big Media Debate: misinterpreting the limitations of our print past as prescriptions for our media future.
The media of the 21st century is one that is blogged—not a negative thing, see later in the piece!—and merged with the users’ own experiences and viewpoints synthesized with the original. If postmodernism came to literature in the ’80s, it’s got to come to journalism now.
The new engaged media should use professional journalism as the starting point for a more engaged consumer—but the professionalization of journalism that took place in the white-collar-college-kid 20th century should not get thrown out the window.
To see that axiom in action, just look at the case of Chauncey Bailey, the Oakland, Calif., reporter who was killed in 2007 for his reporting about the shady goings-on at Your Black Muslim Bakery.
As Tim Arango reported in The New York Times, a team of journalists—all of whom had been in some way downsized from their previous places of employment in traditional media outlets—working out of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting at Berkeley advanced the story in a way that has led to the resignation of the city’s chief of police and the uncovering of a much more vast conspiracy than even Mr. Bailey was thought to have uncovered.
Which, of course, raises the question of how this brave new journalistic world will be funded.
For too long, the focus has been on modifying the model that print media grew accustomed to: subscriptions plus newsstand sales plus advertising would, in the math of print media, equal profits. In his Time cover story on the death of newspapers, Walter Isaacson argued that online journalism had devalued its product by focusing too much on advertising; Mr. Isaacson wrote that this “makes for a wobbly stool even when the one leg is strong.”
His solution—charging users in micropayments for content—is not a new one, and merely attempts to impose an old solution on a new problem. But just look at Time’s 25 Best Blogs of 2009—a list that included such “blogs” as the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and Mashable. Not only is it a list that could have been written almost anytime in the last five years, but it also continues this canard that media outlets that started online should be called “blogs”—a word that is now so broad as to be almost meaningless.
The most sane and possibly most workable proposal came from the Boston University professor Marshall W. Van Alstyne, who gave a three-pronged plan to Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner a couple weeks ago:
(1) Media platforms should be bundled into technology platforms;
(2) Premium access—one better than the failed TimesSelect project—will bring in revenue;
(3) Publishers should work more on matching advertisers with users, which is a suggestion that might finally help break the growing, pernicious primacy of Google in raking in Internet ad dollars.
It’s also a holistic point of view that does not raise the phony dichotomies publishers have been beating their heads against for more than a decade: paid content versus advertising; print versus digital; professional journalism versus “user-generated content”; blogging versus reporting.
The cover of Time promoting Mr. Isaacson’s article was conceptually frustrating in several ways. It asked how to save print newspapers while never seeming to distinguish them from magazines, and it asked variously whether print can survive and whether journalism can survive.
“I think a lot of the conversation these days is myopic,” said Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor of The Washington Post. “The problem is how to monetize all content, which is not simply how to solve newspapers problems. Our problems are ultimately the same as the movie industry’s, the book industry’s, the magazine industry’s, the music industry’s. We all meet on a vast, flat digital plane, which is a sort of Hobbesian, anarchic, unordered place.”
Solitary, nasty, brutish and short. That is unless the news media takes some control of this narrative.