So neither of the deus ex machina solutions to the newspapers’ (somewhat exaggerated) financial plight—different ownership structures, or more favorable revenue sharing with search engines—seems likely. Rather, publishers need to work with what they have, investing in people and technology to get through this transition to the promised land of hybrid print-Web publishing.
Given that America’s newspapers collectively employ far fewer R&D people than Microsoft, Google, Yahoo et al., it is remarkable that newspapers have emerged as formidable Web innovators. And so far nobody has succeeded in replicating the range, depth, and quality of a newspaper in a Web-only daily (or hourly). You can click on Google News for a quick snapshot of breaking stuff, but most of that content originates in newspapers. “The cliché used to be, ‘Call me anything you want as long you spell my name right,’ ” says the Post’s James Brady. “Today, it’s call me whatever you like as long as you link to me.” Far more bloggers are linking to newspapers than vice-versa.
Web-only journalism has been surprisingly slow to challenge newspapers on their home court. When Slate launched the first online magazine in 1996, it appeared to signal a whole trend. But journalism turns out to be expensive. Slate briefly tried a $19.95 paid-subscription model in 1998, but lost far more readers than it gained income, and abandoned the approach. Even though it is now owned by The Washington Post, Slate was in many ways a higher quality journalistic product when Michael Kinsley began it. Today Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and the rest, offer far more comment than news, since talk is cheap and reportage isn’t.
Four years after Slate, in November 2000, Josh Marshall launched his superb Talking Points Memo. As the Internet’s first I. F. Stone, Marshall looked to be the harbinger of independent, branded, Web-only investigative reporting, using his own diligence combined with tips forwarded by his tens of thousands of fans, and breaking a lot of news, sometimes scooping the dailies. Today Marshall presides over a small conglomerate of interconnected sites and colleagues, one of which is the excellent TPM Muckraker, with two regular employees who practice Marshall’s brand of investigation. As a whole, however, the much-expanded TPM now has a far higher ratio of comment and interpretation (some of it first-rate) to enterprise reporting.
In their modern classic, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, recounting a half-century’s decline of civic engagement (a decline that began long before the Internet), reports that newspaper readers are more likely than nonreaders to participate in politics and local public life. Cities and towns with newspapers have a more transparent civic and public life than those without them.
In effect, we deputize editors to be our proxies, delegating to them the task of assigning reporters and deciding what news we need to know on a given day and to certify its pertinence and accuracy. We trust them to do a more reliable job than even our own Web-surfing. (As Chico Marx famously put it in Duck Soup, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”). But as readers, we no longer have to make that either/or choice between newspapers and the wild Web. We can have both the authoritative daily newspaper to aggregate and certify, and the infinite medley of the Web—all of which puts the traditional press under salutary pressure to innovate and to excel.
As Generation Y grows up, and Generation Z finds the idea of getting news on paper even quainter, more people like Ezra (and his children) will become their own editor-aggregators. But if the dailies do their jobs, the next generation will still read newspapers—online.
My reporting suggests that many big dailies have turned the corner, though only barely and just in time, that newspapers have started down a financially and journalistically viable path of becoming hybrids, without losing the professional culture that makes them uniquely valuable.