The Grave Dancer’s Folly

Blaming newspapers for their plight is a waste of precious time
July 21, 2009

Despite the tedious posturing of both Web triumphalists (Jeff Jarvis to the Newspaper Association of America: “You blew it!”) and ideologues on either end of the political spectrum (two recent reader comments on CJR.org: “The mainstream media has sold out to our corporate controlled Congress,” and “Newspapers deserve to die like Pravda and Izveztia [sic]”), nobody is winning the debate over what the future of journalism will look like. For all the unhelpful pronouncements from the futurists of “innovate or die,” none of the innovations thus far has produced the kind of public-service journalism that our newspapers, at their best, still manage to deliver.

Earlier this year, Clay Shirky, who, as Web triumphalists go is a mild and often extremely thoughtful case, published an assessment of the plight of newspapers in which he said as much, likening the current predicament to the decades following Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press: “So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs? . . . I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

So let’s get past 1500—and past the blind faith that the future will take care of itself. A first step: stop the glib sniping about how newspapers are reaping what they’ve sown.

Yes, newspapers behaved for decades like arrogant monopolists. But they also have been an increasingly lonely bastion for serious journalism, and therefore must figure prominently in whatever journalistic future emerges.

In other words, the snipers and the snipees need each other. Rather than punish newspapers for their sins, we should work to find ways to preserve and transfer their most important attributes to a digital era, even as we push them to adapt to new financial, technological, and cultural realities.

Again, Shirky: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. . . . When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”

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True, but what has always worked for journalism is the public-service mission, the idea that it is crucial to have people who make their living by going out into the world and doing their imperfect best to tell us what is happening there and why—especially when it involves those things that powerful people and institutions would rather we not know.

It’s not glamorous work. Listen to Eric Schlosser describe the lengths he went to to make sure his book, Fast Food Nation, was as accurate as possible:

I hired a factchecker . . . who’d worked at The New Yorker. He challenged every single assertion of fact in the book. And I hired a libel attorney. . . . Both went over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. I did have to cut a few pages describing some allegedly fraudulent business practices by one of the big meatpacking companies. Since I couldn’t prove it, I couldn’t include it.

We need professional journalism. It doesn’t have to be delivered on paper; it need not be produced by omnibus newsrooms with twelve hundred reporters and editors; and it can surely be complemented by amateur efforts. But it must be done by people who have the time for, and commitment to, the kind of painstaking work that Schlosser describes. It is not something one does in his spare time, or when inspiration strikes. It is a job.

A problem with Shirky’s Gutenberg analogy is that, in 1500 the transition was from nothing to something—a rapid expansion of news and information. Today we face the prospect of, at least in terms of serious journalism, going from something to nothing. We can’t afford to lose the engine of our news and information culture before we know how to replace it. 

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.