Who will mind the magnates?

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I happened across a discarded copy of the paper for the Sunday before last at a restaurant. As I paged through the funny pages (officially known as the Opinion section), I came across a piece by syndicated Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., with this pull-quote prominently displayed:

No, only the local paper performs the critical function of holding accountable the mayor, the governor, the local magnates and potentates for how they spend your money, run your institutions, validate or violate your trust.

But what if your local paper is run by the local magnates and potentates? What if your local paper chooses instead to perform the function of tearing down anyone who might challenge the power of the magnates and potentates?

And I'm trying and failing to recall the last time the local paper held our current mayor or governor accountable for anything. (They regularly held the previous mayor accountable anytime he showed signs of listening to conservatives and outsiders.)

I write for (and read, of course) a weekly paper, and I used to love reading daily papers. I can appreciate the history and tradition and convenience of the newspaper form. But I fail to see what makes ink and paper magical when it comes to holding the powerful to account.

Pitts writes, in the sentence after the pull-quote, "If newspapers go, no other entity will have the wherewithal to do that." Where did that wherewithal come from? Newspapers were for many years the most efficient and convenient way to deliver both content and advertising to a wide audience. That gave them the ability to charge high rates for advertising which could then fund better content which increased readership which made ads even more valuable.

When radio came along, it created another avenue for disseminating content and advertising. But it didn't kill newspapers. Radio can't show pictures, and as a linear medium it can't convey detailed information -- whether baseball box scores, stock prices, or department store sale items -- as well as print. Except for TV's ability to show pictures, it suffers from the same restricted ability to present complex and detailed information. Radio and television are sequential; newspapers are "random access" -- you can stop, skip around, come back, re-read.

Enter the internet, and specifically, the world-wide web. Not only can the web match the "random access" capability of newspapers, it improves upon it with the ability to hyperlink related content, search content, save and organize favorite content, and mix a variety of media types together in one place. Not only can I see an ad for a restaurant on a news website, I can click on a link and visit the restaurant's website and look at the restaurant's menu. Where once a newspaper was a business's best hope of raising public awareness, the internet makes it easier for potential customers to find you and makes possible a variety of niche businesses that could never hope to find enough customers via traditional media.

What the web doesn't offer (yet) is the convenient form factor of the newspaper for reading over a meal, on the front porch, or on the airplane during those dread times when electronic devices must be stowed. And there's still a serendipity factor with a paper -- there are articles that I'd never click to read on the web that will catch my eye in print. And of course, you can't easily underline or annotate web articles. (Yet.)

If newspapers are no longer the most efficient and convenient way to deliver both content and advertising to a wide audience, then how will they maintain the wherewithal to hold the powerful to account? (Assuming they choose to do so.) Who will have the wherewithal to gather, summarize, and distribute the volume of news that we came to expect during the golden age of newspapers?

Newsgathering may not be as expensive as it once was, thanks to the internet, but whether the reporter is sitting in City Hall or watching the Council meeting over the web, you won't have a report unless the reporter (whether paid or volunteer) takes the time to watch it. You may be able to Google the Federal budget, but someone has to take the initiative to do it, to sift through the wealth of information to find the significant, newsworthy fact.

If someone discovers newsworthy information, blogs make it easier that ever to publish it in a way that interested people can find it. But it can still get lost in all the noise. And, as I noted in last week's column, in Oklahoma, publishing information that holds the "magnates" accountable may also subject you to legal action designed to drain your finances and your morale.

It's hard to see how you can have the scale of newsgathering needed to create the kind of accountability Pitts talks about without a source of money. It seems clear that the old paradigm that made newspapers possible is now broken. As Clay Shirky pointed out in a brilliant, must-read, much-linked essay, the new paradigm has yet to emerge:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know "If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?" To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves -- the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public -- has stopped being a problem....

In craigslist's gradual shift from 'interesting if minor' to 'essential and transformative', there is one possible answer to the question "If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?" The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it's been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it's been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it's you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can't be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That's been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we're going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

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.

I've only quoted a small piece of this -- you really need to read the whole thing.

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Bob said:

Wonderful commentary, Michael.

The successful centuries old business model of the daily newspaper has been broken by both advances in technology and changes in the tastes of readership.

Renowned daily newspapers are folding at an almost DAILY pace. Both Chicago newspapers are in Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

Denver's Rocky Mountain News recently folded.

The Seattle P-I has converted to Internet Delivery only.

The NY Times is teetering, after repeated lay-offs.

I wonder how our own Daily Disappointment is really doing?

In the face of falling circulation, they raise their newsstand price from $0.50 to $0.75. What an outstanding marketing strategy! Layoffs have ensued, as well.

Would Tulsans be better off without the Tulsa World?

Better informed via alternative news delivery channels?

Better lead by our elected officials, who no longer would have to fear offending the AGENDA of the all-too-powerful editorial "board" at the Lorton's World?

We'll see.....

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Who will mind the Magnates sounds like a good title / purpose for a blog.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 2, 2009 11:25 PM.

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