Yes, the newspaper industry is tanking. Big American broadsheets are bankrupt, laying off nearly 12,000 people in 2009 alone. Okay, the sky is falling; we know this.
So, what are we losing? Well, reporters: the shoe-leather characters who sniff out a story, follow it and then edify the rest of us. Eric Alterman has written an elegant obituary for "the kind of local reporting that our democracy depends on—the kind we can no longer take for granted as economic trends accelerate in the newspaper industry". At a time many praise the democratic rise of the amateur as David to newsprint's Goliath, Alterman convincingly huffs, "It's unlikely that we can rely on obsessive, poorly paid bloggers (with day jobs) to step in and replace robust investigative reporting."
Interesting experiments such as ProPublica, "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest", seem to be pointing the way forward. The industry can't simply evolve with the times; it needs a mini-revolution. Like National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, reliable print reporting may soon need to be publicly funded.
It is worth reading David Simon's testimony before Congress about the death of the newspaper industry. A former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the (awesome) HBO series "The Wire", Simon observed:
The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we've actually reached some sort of equilibrium. You know, the next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician, all right?
(For extra dramatic effect, Simon delivered these lines while sitting next to the Aggregator in Chief.) Of course it's not as though politicians have a history of behaving impeccably out of fear of the Fourth Estate. But a recent report from a couple of Princeton economists concluded that newspapers, "even underdogs such as the [Cincinnati] Post, which had a circulation of just 27,000 when it closed–can have a substantial and measurable impact on public life." Evidently the Post's closure "lowered the number of people voting in elections and the number of candidates for city council, city commission and school board in those areas. It also increased incumbent council and commission members' chances of staying in office."
Oh dear. We take for granted our access to information--freely pursued and thoughtfully presented--at our peril. The future may not need paper, but it certainly needs reporters.
(Hat tip to Democracy in America)
Picture credit: aloshbennett (via Flickr)