On Rethinking Journalism

Before paper, journalists drew on the walls of caves, trees, rocks, in the dirt and sand, … About 3,000 BCE, they were given papyrus by Egyptians. Then they learned how to write, leaving the art to others. The ink, with which to, followed around 2,600 BCE. On parchment around 300 BCE, paper since about 200 BCE. Printing on paper evolved in several locations between 1040 and 1440 CE. For more than 600 years, journalism was associated with writing and printing with ink on paper. Newspapers have had a good run.

At all times, they did it the way they did because that was what they had. Today, there are options. Options that don’t involve walls, paper, … or any of these things. How would William Shakespeare present his works, if he were alive today? As does Jane Campion, of course: Digitally, and streamed. Because she could. Were Will around, he would too.

Today, that’s what The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post (WP) (no longer really newspapers) do. The others will either follow suit or die. Same goes for books, magazines, programs, and menus. Only a matter of overcoming persistence at this point. Newspaper reading had become a worldwide ritual. With a cup of coffee or tea, with a glass of wine, on the front porch, …; over five hundred years, people grew to like the feel of holding them, folding them; even the smell of them.

Newspapers per se have been around since the 16th CE. Almost from the beginning, they depended on advertising for revenue. If they printed what people wanted to read, they could sell lots of copies, which meant that they could sell more advertising and charge more for it. All, as long as what they printed was OK with their advertisers. Id est, newspapers have always been subject to market forces. Ergo; so too had Journalism.

A devil’s bargain at best. In their day, newspapers were very powerful indeed. Something that was not lost on the rich and the powerful. Of late, for the industry, it’s been more like the dead and the dying. Even some of the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries are long gone. Lamenters and chroniclers of newspaper decline often blame Craig Newmark (Craigslist) for stealing their ad revenue stream. Worse, after stealing it, he gave it away. The want ads, the for sale ads, the help wanted ads, the personals; all gone.

Fair enough to blame Newmark. But, it was a bad model. The idea that journalism was a market commodity was always more than a little problematic. Led to buying control of content from the beginning. News as a commodity followed, to be followed by news as entertainment. News as propaganda was always there. Patriot or Tory, Liberal or conservative, there has always been a Fox.

Cable News (news as entertainment) epitomized the commodification of the news. Subscriptions were now ratings which were a measure of eyeballs/unit time. Many of its journalists were hired for their camera qualities, then received on-the-job training as talking heads with bodies. Journalism is a profession; as is acting. According the title journalist to someone who is trained to perform for the camera is a quite liberal use of the term. Journalism of a kind? Perhaps. Cable News is a phenomenon in and of itself.

These days, we hear much gnashing of teeth and lamentation over the demise of local newspapers. Some deservedly so; some not so much. A continuum from very good to very bad, and everything in between. Commonly, they were conservative, pro business. Some were right wing propagandist. Almost all had a pro white, pro establishment, pro status quo, bent. Anyone who has suffered the ‘ Hearst Newspapers’ of America’s small towns (usually the only one) would be hard pressed to summon up any nostalgia for them. Yet, even they provided an important service to the community.

Adapt or die. Change has been coming fast of late. This time of change could be seen as an opportunity. A time to ask, “What exactly are the essential services that newspapers, journalism, provide?” “How best provide those services, now and going forward?” Today, instead of paper and ink, we have computers. Instead of printing presses and delivery trucks (and paperboys), we have the internet.

Traditionally, newspapers provided the public with the news of the day; kept it informed about new ideas, new scientific facts, government actions, politics, commerce, scandals, …. In democracies, they were and still are considered most essential to governance; are often referred to as the fourth branch of government, the fourth estate. They were the ones who dug up the facts, uncovered the truth so that we could be well informed; be good citizens.

How best provide those services, now and going forward? Today, instead of newsstands selling newspapers and paperboys tossing them toward our door, we have cable television, computers, and cellphones. We go around with several major news sources at hand. We are more connected than was ever before imaginable. Journalism should take full advantage. This is what the NYT and WP are doing; are being wildly successful doing. Instead of hundreds of thousands of newspaper subscribers, they are dreaming of millions, tens of millions of online subscribers (streamers). {Don Bongino, Fox News and radio talk show host, recently reminded Evan Osnos of The New Yorker (Dan Bongino and the Big Business of Returning Trump to Power), that he, Bongino, a right-wing talk show host had three times the audience of Osnos. Rush Limbaugh, sent a shock wave through the political cosmos, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What Grey Lady?} The costs, compared to those of operating printing presses and a delivery system, are minuscule. No trees being cut for newsprint, no messy, toxic, ink being used, no labor for the printing and delivery, …; only journalist and IT salaries — accounting’s a breeze; done by computer.

The NYT and the WP are aiming high; at Facebook (Facebook has around 222 million users in the US), Twitter, and YouTube numbers. One in five Americans admits that social media is their sole source of news. News websites and apps have already surpassed Cable TV, and network TV. Our next TV will be a computer hooked up to the internet; radio included. The NYT and WP have both benefited from having survived, being the last ones standing. That helps. Makes it a lot easier to get those millions of subscribers. So far, for the most part, they are putting their good fortune to good use. Both are doing good work, doing a good job of keeping the nation informed about national and international news. Given the reach of the internet, they can think national, global. Both already have ‘reporters’ in every major city. Both now offer online subscriptions for $2/wk, or less. Well worth it. A few more like them around the country and, nationally, we would be OK for the national news. Freed us from the classifieds. Free us from click-bait.

OK, but for the essential local news. Is it possible to support a local newspaper, even a medium-sized city’s newspaper with online subscriptions? Hard to see a few hundred, or even thousand, subscribers at $2/wk supporting a staff of reporters. Unlikely to attract entrepreneur billionaire benefactors like Jeff Bezos; though there have been instances. As with so many other essential service; needs to be asked, “Should they be publicly funded?” Subsidized? People elect a sheriff, should they be allowed to vote for a ‘contracting’ chronicler? Bona fides, only.

Most local TV and radio stations now stream. If their journalistic standards are high enough, this may be good enough for local news coverage; the future.

These days, journalists do a lot of their investigating by googling for information online. Something anyone with a computer connected to the internet could go online and do. Recently, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJU) relied heavily on the internet in its Panama Papers investigation. In 2010, ProPublica was the first online news source to win a Pulitzer. These days, especially if public records were made more transparent, the average citizen could monitor City Hall, the Police, Congress, …. Anyone can keep informed. Journalism, too, has changed a lot with the advent of the internet; still is.

Back in the 70s, TV camera crews were truly a crew, now they are one. Top-of-the-line journalists covering Congress and the White House do so with their iPhones. A teenager with a smartphone captured the murder of George Floyd. Smartphone recordings are being used to track down the 6th of January insurrectionists. Today: Anyone with a smartphone is a potential journalist. Drones are being used to monitor traffic, traffic accidents, forest fires, and protests and riots; could be used to cover insurrections.

Back in the days of film noir, the news was about traffic accidents, police calls, City Hall, weddings, and births. Today: Journalists cover ransomware attacks, computer scams, high finance, biotech, big tech and artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, pandemics, the social media, and dark money. Most hold at least one college degree; even so, it is not easy to get a job that pays a living wage — to get any job, as a journalist.

ICIJU, ProPublica, and Frontline are current examples of great journalism. Both the Post and the Times have some great reporters. Both have bad. The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Smithsonian, and The National Geographic, have great journalists on staff. Over the years, like newspapers, journalists have come in all caliber; from Pulitzer to poser, hero to scoundrel, crusader to prostitute. From Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to John Solomon and Judith Miller.

In the early days of the internet, we envisioned unlimited exchange of information and ideas (many once thought the same about TV). We got Facebook. Facebook with too much propagation of disinformation, misinformation, and really goofy ideas about reality. We were dumbed down. Facebook was in the news business without the ethics of journalism; without any journalists, any editors, any liability. Facebook, run by frat boys, is in the gossip business. Again, so much for the wisdom of the market place. Instead of enlightening us, it turned the nation into a bunch of blithering idiots who would, wanted to, believe anything but the facts, the science.

We have seen tremendous benefits from the internet. The possibilities still seem almost limitless. Newspapers, magazines, … journalism were once the great facilitators for the exchange of information and ideas. Today, there is room for more ‘do it ourselves’, citizen, journalism; for the sharing of information. There’s still time to get it right.

Today, large news organizations like the WP and NYT can raise sufficient revenue from online subscriptions to be free of influence from large advertisers. They can become what NPR and PBS were originally intended to be. PBS passport gets close; online needs to get rid of control of content; get back to public television before Kochs (BK).