It is by now an old story, this havoc wrought on the newspaper industry by the digital technologies associated with the internet. It’s almost as old as the Web; we seemed to know from the very beginning that the ability of small, basement and bedroom operations would have a destabilizing force on journalism. That much, at least, we got right, but even the most foresighted were largely wrong about how it would do so.
For one thing, early narratives of the decline of the American newspaper were born of mixed motives. From the consumer’s point of view, the newspaper industry seemed vital at the advent of the Web. It didn’t take long for both consumers and industry professionals to see the threat posed by the rapid development of a technology that offered free access to the sort of reportage that had once been the almost exclusive province of daily and weekly papers. It came as a veritable bolt from the blue, and commentators with a vested stake in print were quick to espouse that view. The truth of the matter is that the industry had already been gutting itself from the inside, but playing up the disruptive force of the Web allowed journalists, editors and owners to preempt accusations that a healthier Fourth Estate would have been less vulnerable to disruption.
The more we understand the context of the newspapers at that particular historical moment, the more able we are to understand the shape of their response to evolution of online journalism. In a recent piece for Harper’s Magazine, Denver-based David Sirota points out one of the more perverse results:
… in a single-paper market like Denver, a struggling daily like the Post can enjoy a sort of deathbed resurrection, exercising a bizarre level of influence and vitality simply because the competition has vanished. The result is that activist newspapers shape local politics, business, and election outcomes in ways that would have been unthinkable in the Darwinian environment of two, three, or even four daily papers.
In part, that’s because the journalism practiced by the papers is no less important now than it was at the birth of the Web. Early predictions held that a groundswell of amateur, online journalism would undermine professional journalism by making the same information available for virtually free. People would stop buying papers because the same news could be found online, independently reported by bloggers, albeit with less polish.
Actually, the blow dealt by news blogging ended up being relatively light. Outlets like The Drudge Report may have shaken things up a bit early on, but the real damage was done by Craigslist, which by offering a free and improved alternative to print classifieds undermined one tier of the economic model that kept news weeklies and dailies profitable. If anything, the reportage done by print outlets became even more valuable, even as the papers found it more difficult to sustain.
That’s because the papers and traditional wire services are still responsible for much of the news reported by online venues. As Sirota explains,
… even as millions of readers abandon newspapers for blogs and websites such as the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, these online enterprises still rely on aggregation for much of their content. And since such aggregation is largely made up of borrowing or stealing from those very newspapers, the Internet has expanded newspapers’ ability to frame events and shape the terms of our political conversation, while simultaneously killing off such money-spinning franchises as the classified ad.
That, in part, explains the superficially strange reversal (noted by the Pew Research Group’s 2012 report Who Owns the News Media) which saw purchases of failing newspapers by notable investors. Berkshire Hathaway in particular bought 63 papers, despite Warren Buffett’s prior reticence to invest in the medium. But the removal of competitors in local markets has made the wounded survivors more valuable, particularly given the way in which online aggregation extends their reach.
Sirota makes a compelling case for the dangers inherent in this turn of events, but “The Only Game In Town” is short on solutions. The metaphor he provides — single-market newspapers as dying stars in the red giant phase — offers pessimism about the future of print media as a kind of Pyrrhic hope. Yes, they’ve gotten big and corrupt, but that size and influence is a result of their moribundity. Given enough time, they may die of their own accord, leaving the field open for a grassroots alternative.
There is, potentially, a less passive alternative. At least in principle, there is no reason that online outlets couldn’t dedicate themselves to the task of challenging the print monopolies that have grown in single-newspaper markets.
Doing so will require an editorial commitment to at least three policies that have so far been absent in a great many online news outlets:
- A dedicated local purview: Because digital distribution makes it so easy to broadcast on a national or international scale, precious few online news sites have dedicated themselves to an exclusive focus on local news. Those that have tend to be the online branch of local papers. But if part of the goal is to disrupt local monopolies on influence, an emphasis on the regional scene takes on a renewed importance.
- A responsible adversarial strategy: Loudly criticizing the dominant paper in a given market is not enough. A major function of any alternative press must be to challenge the monopoly by reporting on the stories allowed to slip through the cracks, whether inadvertently or by design. It may even be that online challengers can forgo the task of providing comprehensive coverage so long as they provide an adequate counterpoint to the dominant newspaper’s slant and sins of omission.
- Less reliance on aggregation — or, at least, a more considered editorial strategy when it comes to aggregation. After all, it’s difficult to counteract the interests of a news monopoly when the news you report comes from the venues exercising monopoly power. That can mean supporting smaller, local periodicals by aggregating their content whenever possible, but it should probably also mean at least a modicum of original reporting whenever possible.
Online journalism once promised to disrupt the mode of print journalism — the way it was written and the sort of content it provided readers — but mostly contented itself with weakening the economic model that sustained it. As such, the creative potential of online journalism remains largely untested. There will, of course, be difficulties — like the persistent question of how to finance a viable alternative press — but it’s time for online news to remember its initial promise. The alternative is to accept the growing influence of local news monopolies and hope for the worst.
: Online access requires a magazine subscription, but a smaller post publicly available on the site gives some of the essential background. For those concerned with the evolving status of news journalism in the U.S., the full article is worth seeking out.