Foreclosing on the Fourth Estate

I’ve never been a newspaper reader. My father was. In the 70s, we used to get the afternoon paper so he could settle back and gather in the news after his day at work. newspressrun-260Then the afternoon paper went under and he was forced to get that bastion of “distorted news and opinion”, the morning paper. That time was the beginning of the end for newspapers, we just didn’t realize it at the time.

At one point, major cities boasted several newspapers that were available in morning or afternoon editions to suit the reader. But then came television. TV didn’t require you to spend lengthy periods of time concentrating on the news. You could have the babble-box on in the background and turn your attention to it only when something of interest came up. It was easier.

Then came CNN and C-SPAN. For 24-hours a day, you could not only receive the news from around the world, but you could see for yourself the government in action without a filter. At first, because cable penetration hadn’t yet reached a critical mass, these channels were more of a curiosity than the harbingers of doom.

Then came the “shouting heads”. I’m not sure anything exemplified this bizarre mutant of journalist opinion better than the syndicated The McLaughlin Group.

Before long, this became the standard: find two or more “journalists” from various parts of the political spectrum (often from the fringes), and let them just yammer on, often at high volume, with no real direction. Though some called this healthy debate, most settled on the term that most accurately described what it was: shouting heads.

As this take on “journalism” not only took root but bloomed into full-blown partisan blusterism across the cable box, a new beacon started shining: the Internet. Perhaps, with the voice of the people, perhaps some new method of news delivery would emerge. Alas, the advent of blogging exhibited exactly the same weakness as happened with CNN (i.e. the need to constantly fill space at the expense of double- and triple-sourcing facts) and created even new cracks in the foundation of the press with opinion, rumor, and outright lies passing as fact without so much as a by-your-leave.

Which sort of returns us to newspapers. Because of television, cable, bluster, the web, and more, the newspapers are dying. They’ve been dying for over three decades now…it’s just taken this long for alternatives to fall into place. The question is, are we willing to refurbish these walls of journalism to bring them into our new reality? Can the newspaper establishment make itself anew?

Because the establishment never gets it. That’s how it is with paradigm shift. The establishment does not see where the next wave is coming from. And even if they hire someone to tell them where the next wave is coming from, they never believe them.

—Theodor Holm Nelson

Print journalism has always had one element that none of the other forms have ever managed to grab and hold onto: integrity. That’s been sorely tested with recent plagiarism and fictionalism revelations at major papers over the decades, but for the most part, newspapers still carry with them the aura of fact-checking and thoughtfulness that are often lacking in their less-filtered and non-deliberated brethren.

To the credit of the publishers, they have seen that ink-on-paper was not going to last. Most papers turned to making available on-line editions. Unfortunately, the economics of the web haven’t been amenable to much black ink in corporate ledgers. Though the idea of on-demand delivery was correct and offered some welcome improvements over the print editions (e.g. archived articles) the problem was with the model itself. This wasn’t entirely the fault of the publishers as they’ve needed to wait for a new platform that fit their business better.

For newspapers to survive, they need a physical delivery mechanism that follows the Gillette philosophy of giving away the razor and then profiting with the blades. A versitile reading device, perhaps a generation up from today’s Kindle 2 from Amazon, will be the ticket to sustainability. The trick will be for the CEOs to not listen to the worse angels of their business models and ensure that the device is not proprietary. A branded newspaper-only device will fail. People will not suffer having to juggle numbers of e-books. They’ll take one.

The key is to make the e-books ubiquitous. So cheap for the user to replace that they’ll take them everywhere. They’ll not only read books and whatnot, but also pay a small subscription fee so that replacement of the device in the future is affordable, but to also get their news content as they want it (including archives).

I’d suggest that newspaper publishers collaborate with text-book publishers and ancillary syndicators (comics, puzzles, etc.) to develop a transparent and affordable model to continue their services. They can’t be wholly advertiser subsidized (that’s be proven to be unsustainable), but neither can they be wholly funded by subscription. It will require both with the method of cash influx based on the quantity of their quality material that is accessed.

I think, too, it wouldn’t hurt for the editors and managers who do the most newsworthy jobs to be trumpeted more. In a world awash in a flood of blogs, much of the public is unaware of the importance of the gatekeepers of news. Note that I used the word “news” instead of “information” or “data”. Journalism is about the processing of news and presenting what is relevant. Many complain about how they are drowning in too much information. That’s what the gatekeepers are for.

For quite a while, despite the fits of yellow-journalism, the less rapacious nature of print has given the people all the news that’s fit. Lately, beset by troubles both economic and technological, they have been stumbling a little, trying to find a new direction. It will take some work, but I believe that true journalism is too important to leave to the jackals who do nothing but hoot and howl as they pick clean the carcass of truth. It’s time for real newsmen and newswomen, from the board room to the press room, to rise up and say that they are again ready to be the eyes and ears of the people…giving us the facts of the day without tainting them without editorializing (said opinions to be reserved for the opinion pieces).

I’ve never been much of a newspaper reader. I am a news reader. A better method of delivery than RSS, but just as easy and common, would fit those of us who simply can’t deal with the unwieldiness and expense (economic and environmental) of paper.

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