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The End of Journalism

March 19th, 2009 No comments

Driving home last night, I heard the antepenultimate (there’s a word best avoided!) installment of the NPR show “News and Notes.” The show, which alone among the network’s shows features an African-American point of view, is a casualty of the economic crisis. And I don’t understand the decision to cancel the show, given that many of the network’s other shows have a remarkable sameness to them.

Not surprisingly, the guests — a roundtable of bloggers — were discussing future outlets for their work. This conversation reminded me that we in the blogosphere will do fine (for awhile) in the rapidly changing world of information. But we are essentially bottom feeders, remora fish (“aggregators” is apparently the approved euphemism) scrounging for tidbits that the mainstream news has introduced, relying for our nuggets on reporting from other sources. Even the best and most well-known blogs, such as the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, largely rely on primary sources turned up by front-line journalists, usually of the print variety. But what will become of us when these sources disappear?

The question is hardly academic. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer just printed its final issue; the “paper” is now available only on-line. I recently received an e-mail from The Nation asking for a contribution so that the magazine can stay afloat,  and continue to do the kind of investigative reporting for which it’s become famous (or  infamous, depending on your politics). Even the venerable New York Times is in danger, as detailed in a perceptive article by Michael Hirschorn in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. (Since  that story, the Times has entered into a complex real estate transaction involving its building that provided a cash infusion and a temporary reprieve.)

It’s not as though these problems can be “solved” simply by moving these publications on-line. Advertising can’t be sold at high prices in cyberspace, meaning that the on-line versions of papers will be much thinner, economically. By way of dramatic example, the Seattle P-I is reducing its news staff dramatically, from about 150 to about 20. Under this  model, the kind of investigative reporting that the public has historically relied on newspapers to perform will not be possible.

The Philadelphia  Inquirer, Philly’s flagship paper, is also in very deep trouble.  The owner of the city’s two papers (the other is the Daily News)  recently filed for bankruptcy, culminating a downward spiral in circulation that has changed the paper in recent years from a significant national news source to an almost exclusively regional one, with news from other places (as exotic and far away as D.C.)  now furnished by the AP, the NY Times News Service, and others. Even with these compromises and concessions, though, the Inquirer has still been able to do good local, investigative reporting, such as its multi-part expose of the city’s dreadful Department of Human Services. (The series catalyzed change and brought accountability to an agency that had too long evaded it.) Such stories won’t be possible, or at least not  in any way that I can see, once papers stop rolling.

The Hirschorn article suggests that the Times and other “brands” can survive by combining the aggregation model of  blogs with “endorsed” reporting from other places, along with some (but  how  much?)  original reporting. Maybe. I’m not  concerned about coverage of events-as-they-happen, because here’s where citizen journalists and locals can continue to expand, excite, and define the “iPhone generation” of reporting. He cites examples of first-rate citizen reporting ranging from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai to Hurricane Katrina.

What happens after that on-the-ground reporting of events is done, though? Who will have the expertise, connections, resources and inclination to do the kind of in-depth reporting that makes sense of these events? Where will we bloggers get our grist? Less self-indulgently put, how can the probing analysis that has been journalism’s obligation to democracy — its “end” — thrive in the post-print world that is surely soon to come?

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