What We're Losing

We learned this weekend that Seattle may be on the verge of closing its second newsaper, the Seattle PI. A few days earlier, Clay Shirky had compared journalists to old Russian hard-liners who had never lived under — or imagined — any other regime. First Henry Blodget and then The Atlantic Monthly began wondering aloud whether the New York Times will be bankrupt as soon as May. And now this weekend Fred Wilson is asking what will happen to journalists next?

Yes, we have gained amazing new voices, many of which I tirelessly champion here: Michael Arrington, Erick Schonfeld, Fred Wilson are my favorites. But lost in the conversation is an inventory of what we’re losing — for the first time since the Internet began its decade-long rampage of creative destruction, I feel a great sense of loss — in the transition from journalism to blogging.

  1. Editors: A blogger has no editor or copy-editor. Good and bad are now sorted out by Digg, Delicious, Google. The last refuge of a keen, discerning eye is now “Project Runway.” Mistakes are inevitable, but in blogging they are greeted with a shrug. Just as I enjoy riding the subway less because it is almost inevitable that someone will sit next to me playing Bon Jovi on an iPod I can overhear, there is almost no news — including, after all the staff cuts, the morning paper — that I can read that isn’t filled with typos and factual errors. Both are a minor but permanent degradation of my environment. I like the freshness of bloggers’ voices, but I also like the persnickety commitment to getting it right of the NYT. There are some amazing bloggers — Kara Swisher for example — who I thought were even better when they worked as more traditional journalists with editors.
  2. The separation of sales from journalism: blogging starts as a labor of love, but every full-time blogger I’ve ever met is overwhelmingly interested in monetizing his blog. Traditionally in journalism, the people who wrote news never gave that a thought. What now seems like a self-destructive, willful blindness to commerce — journalists have become helpless zoo animals who forgot how to hunt on their own — was once an ethical imperative. The division between the journalists and the business people of a newspaper was like church and state, with any meddling from the business side seen as near-sacrilegious. And now this is one reason journalism is going down: the journalists haven’t failed to be journalists, as their coverage is more widely read than ever, but they’ve out-sourced their business brain to people who had no idea how to make money from the web. As someone who has tried to dissociate real estate agents from commissions, I know how dangerous it is to maintain an ethical division between people’s work and the money it generates, but without that division in journalism, we’ll see far less coverage of topics that advertisers find depressing: poverty for example, or the entire continent of Africa. Britney Spears on the other hand will be well-covered, undoubtedly holding a can of the blog sponsor’s brand of soda pop.
  3. The sense of journalism as a profession, with a social commitment: for bloggers, “professional journalist” is a stuck-up anachronism but the definition of a profession, as we have argued before in other contexts, is that you profess to an ideal larger than your self-interest. Many bloggers have their own set of beliefs, but as a group we can’t claim to profess to anything consistent. However error-riddled or yellow journalism may sometimes be, there is a consistent set of aspirations that journalists profess to: to let their subjects speak in their own voices, and to stand up for the truth — as best as it can be made out — against government and business interests that want to spin the truth.
  4. The resources for investigative journalism: one reason Enron happened is that already there were so few business journalists left with the time and resources to dig into the company’s books. We’ve had plenty of scandals overlooked in the era of well-funded journalism but we’ll see even more in the future. The kind of person that became a journalist 20 years ago was someone deeply skeptical of business and government. That a few institutions, like the Washington Post or the New York Times,  would pay these contrarians and cranks to dig into stories that might turn into nothing, and then publish those stories when a lawsuit seemed almost certain, is a miracle. Investigative reporting isn’t profitable — it has always been one of the irrational luxuries of a newspaper’s largess — so it will happen less. That we are losing an important check on the corruption of businesses and government doesn’t bother us much now, but perhaps in a decade it will.
  5. Me vs. he/she vs. we: As George Plimpton tells it, Muhammad Ali once delivered a commencement address that consisted of the shortest poem in history. Deep in the catatonia of Parkinson’s, Ali could only put his hand on his chest and say “ME,” followed after a great pause by his gesturing out to the crowd and saying “WE.” Journalism is about what other people think –”he” and “she” are quoted, not “me” — and newspapers are collectively a statement of “we.” Perhaps blogs represent just a Bakhtinnian proliferation of such communities, but it seems like when there are many different “we’s” we lose the one great big “we.” Republicans and Democrats don’t even get the same news anymore. It’s like Palestinians and Israelis insisting on having two different Sesame Streets, or like the decline of public schools in favor of home-schooling, so that a Christian 9 year-old never meets a Muslim 9 year-old. Maybe the old community got so big it doesn’t work anymore — maybe it was always a lie — but I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Photo credit: * Cati Kaoe * (great name)

Discussion

  • Austin Smith

    Great post. Some of what you say reminds me why I’m in school for journalism, “to stand up for the truth — as best as it can be made out — against government and business interests that want to spin the truth”.
    Thank you for the reminder.

  • http://smallprecautions.blogspot.com Nils

    I don’t cry for the collapse of newspapers generally; rather, I rue the prospective loss of one specific feature of traditional newspapers, namely investigative journalism in political and business affairs. It’s not clear whether that feature — which you rightly point out is a cornerstone of democracy, since it is the mechanism by which transparency and thus potential accountability happens — can be crowd-sourced. If not, it may require some kind of philanthropic funding (which is what the Sulzbergers are in effect doing anyway at the NYT).

    In the case of creating business transparency, it seems plausible that there may be a profitable business to be had in uncovering corrupt companies. Being on the right side of figuring out the Enron or Worldcom frauds would have been pretty damn lucrative.

  • Jen

    I agree with you about editing and copyediting – until I look over some recent articles in the P-I. I think they must have laid off their copyeditors early to cut costs.

    Additionally, in the past couple years, I’ve seen a lot more investigative reporting from blogs than from major newspapers.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Nils, that’s a good idea for a business; investigative reporting focused on business news.

    And I agree Jen that newspapers are in a downward but hopefully not permanent spiral.

    It’s hard to be better than bloggers when you’re challenged to have a cost structure similar to bloggers…

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