I Don’t Want to Paint the Fence: why big media should pipe down and get back to work

Writing April 27th, 2009 in the online magazine Slate, Gary Kamiya argued, “If reporting vanishes, the world will get darker and uglier. Subsidizing newspapers may be the only answer.” Kamiya’s article – titled “The Death of the News” – is just one in a recent onslaught of articles considering print medias’ current troubles. In a commentary published last week by the New York Times, Maureen Dowd asserted, “my profession is in a meltdown.”

The facts of the issue are dramatic. The website Newspaper death watch.com reports that since the creation of the site in March, 2007, 10 daily papers have ceased print publication. (The Rocky Mountain News; Baltimore Examiner; Kentucky Post; Cincinnati Post; King Couty Journal; Union-City Register-Tribune; Halifax Daily News; Albuquerque Tribune; South Idaho Press; and San Juan Star.) Declining revenue is to blame for these failures. Writing on Slate in 2006, Jack Shafer reported, “Everywhere, newspapers are chucking stock tables, eliminating such once-venerable features as horse-racing coverage and their own editorial cartoonists, and consolidating or killing sections” to reduce expenses.

There are many opinions regarding how this crisis happened, and what the effects will eventually be. Dowd’s commentary blames the search engine google for transforming formerly monetized products into free products. Shafer’s piece notes that, “To be fair, the seeds of the great newspaper decline were planted more than 80 years ago… The emergence of every new media technology-the car radio, television, the portable radio, FM, cable, the VCR, the Internet, the cell phone, satellite radio and TV, the podcast, et al.-has delivered another kick to newspapers.”

The internet has increased the efficiency and decreased the cost of basic news reporting. Writing on the Technology blog for the LA Times, David Sarno cited the downing of a plane in the Hudson river as an example of the new reporting cycle. In that instance, a bystander broke the news long before major outlets were anywhere near the scene. Sarno wrote, “This may be among the most striking instances yet of instant citizen reporting, a trend that was visible in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.”

The impact of the print media crisis on investigative reporting is uncertain. The editors of Techdirt.com, writing on March 18th, 2009, argue that the major media outlets are propagating two myths regarding their service: “Myth 1: Newspapers put tons of money and resources into investigative journalism. They don’t. And never have. Myth 2: Only newspapers can do investigative journalism.”  The Huffington Post, one of the leading new news resources, recently created the Huff Post investigative journalism fund. As reported on their site, the Fund has, “an initial budget of $1.75 million. That should be enough for 10 staff journalists who will primarily coordinate stories with freelancers.” The Huff Post initiative resonates with the statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt (as quoted by Maureen Dowd) that, “Incumbents very seldom invent the future.”

The wealth of reporting regarding the decline of print publications is influenced by the fact that those impacted are also the ones holding the megaphones. Jack Shafer’s article remarked, “That high-pitched squealing you hear in the background is the sound of the American newspaper shrinking.”

Looking from my perch as editor of an online arts magazine, I see the pain caused by the loss of staff journalist positions. The situation reminds me of an article written by Terry Teachout for the Wall Street Journal in November of 2006, sub-titled, “The decline and near-disappearance of dance in America.” The article highlighted the National Endowment for the Arts 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which showed that “…the percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 who attended one or more ballet performances a year fell from 5.0% in 1992 to 3.1% in 2002.”

Teachout argued that “Anyone who seeks to launch a new company, or revitalize an old one, must start by figuring out how to make large numbers of Americans want to see something about which they no longer know anything–save that Emmitt Smith does it.” Like Dance, print newspapers are falling off of our radar screen. While the talent of the print economy adapts to a new marketplace, we can rest assured that the market still values reporting, and journalism.

There is no evidence that the interest of consumers has dramatically changed; the marketplace is evolving. New models are developing within a newer economy to support the interests of news consumers and providers. The situation is quite reminiscent of Mark Twain’s experience with the New York Journal (a daily that ceased publication in 1966.) Following publication of his obituary in the Journal, Twain quipped, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”