Friday, November 7, 2008

They May Really Just Not Like Us, Part II

The various facets of the "rebirth of journalism" idea that Newspaper Death Watch so exults didn't really hit me until the election. I had wondered what happened to Kevin Drum, who used to do "Political Animal" for Washington Monthly's Web site. He is now with Mother Jones, as I came across from a link from the new writers of "Political Animal." I haven't read Mother Jones for years, and in checking Drum's column I saw their tagline under the logo: Smart, fearless journalism. And I thought: I'd agree with it far more personally than I would with Fox, but this is in the same league as "Fair and Balanced." Yes, it's journalism. But it's not journalism the way newspapers have practiced it for the last 40 years. It's journalism in the service of a view of how the world should be. It's Zola writing "J'accuse," in L'Aurore, not a report from AFP saying "In an article in a Paris newspaper yesterday, the novelist Emile Zola accused the anti-Dreyfusards of..."

And for many journalists, that change is a relief and a blessing.

In the analog, print world, Mother Jones was a left-wing opinion magazine, Time was a weekly newsmagazine, and the Los Angeles Times was a daily newspaper. They all had different functions that were reflected in their form (size, frequency, etc.) Online, they are all Web sites. Thus the individual journalist, lance in hand, mounting his horse to point out the problems of the world as he sees them, on his personal Web site is the same as the massive infrastructure of the New York Times. He may not have the same credibility, or the number of hits, or whatever -- but he is in the end a Web site. So is the New York Times.

Thus, the rebirth of journalism is in part the rebirth of every journalist to be able to say on an equal basis with every other journalist, here is my view of what's important -- as the noteworthy Jon Talton in "Rogue Columnist" writes every day, down to his in-his-house style of always referring to McCain as "wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III." (Jon covered Phoenix.) I can say this, and no one can stop me. Every person an editor and publisher. Free at last.

As someone who grew up admiring I.F. Stone and Harry Golden, as mentioned before, I admire Talton as well. Isn't this the whole point of the Zenger case, that journalism is not just the ability to say "Four people were killed yesterday..."? Yet the point of Izzy and Harry was that things like I.F. Stone's Weekly tried to tell the real truth by telling their side of the truth, but they knew that they were not the same as the mainstream media avant le nom. The media mainly just tried to say what went on, except when a publisher or editor slanted some particular story. Their main message was: Things happen. Some of them involving John McCain, and some involving four people killed in a traffic accident. I.F. Stone's message was: Bad things happen, and we can stop them. Both were journalism, but they were not the same thing.

A part of the editing process at newspapers is not about the subjunctive mode or capitalization. It is about trying to bring a sense of humility and perspective to the process, a sense that the newspaper is bigger than we are -- both the reader and the newspaper staff. The newspaper had a magisterialness that made it larger than Izzy Stone. In the online world, the newspaper is just as small as everything else. This diminishes it. No wonder people pay less attention to it.

On election night, other than actually doing my job, I spent the night alternating among Daily Kos, Eschaton, Talking Points Memo, and Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. I did so even though I knew that working in a newsroom, I would know almost all of what they knew before they could post it. But I didn't really want on this election night to just read the objective reporting of facts. I didn't want to be glued to the Politics folder of the AP feed. I wanted to be told this time that we were going to win. I wanted to know how great this was (or be told we were right if we lost). I wanted to hear it from friends, even if I had no idea who they were. Virtual communities are like sports bars; you have no idea who is at the next table, but they're cheering for your team so they must be your friends.

The Thursday Camden Courier-Post had six pages of post election coverage. Not all of it was favorable to Barack Obama. Much pointed out the intractable economic problems he faces and the prospect he will fail. I was happy to read it because I wasn't anxious anymore that we would win. I did not need Drum or Atrios to put it into a friendly perspective. I was ready for an objective, nonpartisan, newspaper-style look at the challenges ahead. I will be spending a lot less time with Kos in the weeks ahead.

The Committee of Concerned Journalists always notes that journalism is information subject to a process of verification. That is not the same as telling the truth. It is just saying that there are a lot of people saying a lot of truths and we should report them all. There are times when people want to read lots of truths, and times when they want to read their own truth. Newspapers really can't do much about the latter. The Internet is a superior medium for that, and for journalists who want to report the truth as they know it.

Newspapers are about much more than journalism, which means that journalism is not all that newspapers are about -- which means that some journalists may have less use for newspapers than readers do. Some journalists have claimed that newspapers have no purpose without journalism. That should be asked of the reader, not the journalist, who does not need the newspaper to do journalism but has long appreciated its steady paycheck. The publisher should ask: What are the readers interested in reading, and what can I make money doing? That is different from what the journalist asks himself or herself.

As Justin Williams of the Daily Telegraph noted, the effective cost of publishing anything is now zero; nearly anyone in the world can publish anything online at realistically no cost. It is ruinous for newspapers to believe they have a sustainable economic future from competing head to head in that world on its terms. If the New York Times is in the same business as Jon Talton, the New York Times cannot possibly compete on price. No matter how hard they try, newspapers cannot reduce their costs to near-zero without ceasing to be newspapers. To survive, the newspaper business has to be in a different business than simply the Internet journalism business.

Newspapers are not Internet companies or single operators. Barnes & Noble cannot win by competing head to head on price with Amazon. Barnes & Noble simply has higher costs and always will unless it tries to become a purely Internet company, and during the inevitably shaky transition to that, Amazon probably would destroy it because Amazon would be a better Internet company. The only way for Barnes & Noble to exist is to be what Amazon is not. The only way for newspapers to exist is to be what journalism on the Internet is not, as well as being journalism on the Internet when it suits their purposes.

Newspapers should not expect most journalists to solve this problem for them, because many journalists are overjoyed with the new order. But the owners of newspapers need to realize that you do not predict as inevitable a future you do not want, and that therefore all predictions of the future are suspect. If newspapers do not want the future seemingly laid out for them, they need to hear other voices than those calling for their demise. (For example, newspapers need to run ads showing people lined up to buy copies after Obama's win and the Phillies' championship -- and aim the ads at other advertisers, not readers.)

Newspapers need to acknowledge that some voices, no matter how well intentioned or loud, are not friends of the newspaper business even though they see themselves as friends of journalism. They see the newspaper as an impediment -- and very well might see a totally online newspaper, without physical presses but trying to maintain the same standards it has always had, as as much of an impediment to the rebirth of journalism as a printed one. It's unlikely that an Arizona Republic that had shut down its presses and operated totally online would enthusiastically let Talton say:

"The prohibition on enacting real-estate transfer taxes ("Save Our Homes") will further hamstring government's ability to pay for the public investments desperately needed by this broiling dystopia. It won't save anybody's house, but it will keep the Real Estate Industrial Complex from paying even a modest amount into the commons from which it reaps so much profit."

But there have always been many journalists who have seen the institutions of journalism as the foe of the true journalist.

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