Published: Wednesday, June 16, 2010
By JOHN NICHOLS
There has been a great deal of debate about whether the Internet will fill the journalism void being created by the collapse of newspapers and broadcast news.
Earlier this year, we got an answer: Yes, about 4 percent of it.
A groundbreaking “How News Happens” study of news gathering and reporting in Baltimore, released on Jan. 11 by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, found that the vast majority of new information, or “enterprise reporting,” is generated by old media, especially the city’s daily newspaper, the Sun. In fact, less than 5 percent of the news stories that Pew says “tended to set the narrative agenda for most other media outlets” were generated by “new media” blogs and specialized websites.
But this hardly justifies a chorus of hosannas from the battered newsrooms of Baltimore.
Why? Because the Pew Study also confirms a point that has been overlooked for far too long: The collapse of journalism is not due to Google or the Internet or even the Great Recession. It began before the Internet posed any credible threat to the advertising base or circulation of newspapers.
Pew determined that the Sun’s hollowed-out newsroom is producing 32 percent fewer original stories on any subject than it did in 1999, and 73 percent fewer stories than in 1991. The Internet may be accelerating the deterioration of traditional commercial media, but it is neither the cause of nor the solution for the problem of disappearing journalism.
There can be no serious question that the numbers Pew found for Baltimore are essentially the same for virtually every community across the country. Journalism is in meltdown as the nation’s newspapers continue to shed as many as 1,000 employees every month and major dailies such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Denver Rocky Mountain News shut their doors.
While researching our new book on the crisis in American media, we determined that the digital age, for all its revolutionary effects and democratic potential, does not guarantee that we will have journalism in the 21st century.
In other words, Baltimore’s circumstance is America’s.
The reason is simple: Doing journalism requires resources to pay, first and foremost, for skilled labor. The Internet has no solution for the vexing problem of generating and sustaining commercially viable journalism online and, truth be told, it probably never will.
That is because journalism should best be understood as a public good. It is something our society desperately needs, and that people want, but that the market cannot adequately produce.
In this respect it is like national defense, national parks or public education. In the past 125 years, advertising has provided the lion’s share of revenues to support journalism, which obscured this reality because it made us think the market would always generate sufficient news. But advertising, especially classified advertising, was never attracted to journalism per se, and it has discovered superior routes for reaching consumers.
Now that advertising is on the way out the door, journalism is back to where it was for the first several generations of the republic. What did Americans do then? They instituted enormous postal and printing subsidies to spawn a vastly larger (and independent) newspaper industry than would have existed otherwise.
The Framers, from Washington and Madison and Jefferson to Jackson and Lincoln, all simply assumed that the subsidies were mandatory to have the caliber of press required by a self-governing society.
They were right then, and we would be wise to draw from them as we struggle to get out of our current crisis. Our political debate needs to turn rapidly to studying and considering ways to use public money to create a viable independent and competitive nonprofit and noncommercial news media sector. If we do so, experience in Europe suggests it will also create an environment in which commercial news media will be able to prosper.
As resources for journalism decline, there will still be news, but it will increasingly be lightly edited or even unedited material, much of which will be highly sophisticated, generated by governments, businesses and other self-interested parties.
Our research indicates that the ratio of public relations officials to journalists has gone from just over 1 to 1 in 1980 to nearly 4 to 1 today. Unless we change course we are about to enter a golden age … for propaganda and spin.
A coherent understanding about social affairs will be impossible to establish. It will be a dream world for charlatans, demagogues and conspiracy theorists. And it will be entirely incompatible with our Constitution, our freedoms and our democratic aspirations.
John Nichols is the political writer for The Nation magazine and a frequent commentator on media issues. He will be speaking from 2 to 4 p.m. on June 19 at the Center Church on the Green Parish House, 311 Temple St., New Haven at a fundraiser.