May 10, 2009

The view from above

It often takes awhile for the facts on the ground to filter up to the top. Take, for instance, the decrepit state of newspapers. If you've worked for a paper in, say, the MediaNews Group chain, you've known for several years now that we we're facing an emergency. Just this weekend, two of the most well-known columnists in the industry were compelled to finally panic - eloquently, of course.

Maureen Dowd (who'd written about the industry's decadence last month) used "Star Trek" as a trope to illustrate the troubles for newspapers. Frank Rich's Sunday column got more directly to the point, under the cheery title: "The American Press on Suicide Watch."

Indeed, Rich grabbed hold of what seems to me to be the central argument against placing our faith in technology to create Journalism 2.0 - namely, that there is no widget to get us around the strictures of capitalism. As Rich writes:
What can’t be reinvented is the wheel of commerce. Just because information wants to be free on the Internet doesn’t mean it can always be free. Web advertising will never be profitable enough to support ambitious news gathering. If a public that thinks nothing of spending money on texting or pornography doesn’t foot the bill for such reportage, it won’t happen.
(Of course, not everyone thinks professional journalism need continue. I'm too cranky right now to address that silliness.)

Rich and others look to the past and see a precedence for for-profit journalism:
It’s all a matter of priorities. Not long ago, we laughed at the idea of pay TV. Free television was considered an inalienable American right (as long as it was paid for by advertisers). Then cable and satellite became the national standard.
True. But journalism isn't cable or satellite, it's a few channels on a cable or satellite system. Already people pay a subscription of sorts to have Internet access, but the system doesn't kick anything down to the content providers.

Rich goes off the rails, however, when he casually asserts that some journalism (read, the local stuff papers like the New York Times don't cover) will be taken care of by "voluntary 'citizen journalists' with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site."

That kind of inverted pyramid - big paper journalism continuing to get funds while the local and regional stuff gets taken care of for free - cannot be sustained. Where does Rich think journalists will gain the "technical expertise" to ferret out "what is happening behind closed doors at corrupt, hard-to-penetrate institutions in Washington or Wall Street" if not at smaller newspapers/news organizations? And what about the closed doors at City Hall or the school district? Are they suddenly easier to open? Are the standards for ferreting out the corruption outside of Washington and New York not as important?

If we're going down, we're going down together. Locking yourself in the captain's quarters won't save you when the ship begins to sink.

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