December 29, 2007

It’s About Newspaper Journalism

I once wrote a tough review of a book by a journalist I admire– Davis “Buzz” Merritt. If, however, a book can be judged on the basis of a single idea that springs from it, then, in fact, his book was a great success:

Given the inexorability and pace of technology, we may not need newspapers in our media mix at some point in the future–perhaps sooner than later. But we will need newspaper journalism, because democracy can thrive without newspapers, but it cannot thrive without the sort of journalism that newspapers uniquely provide.

Print is a medium that is never going away. Print, however, no longer requires paper.

I don’t think newspapers are going away–ever. But I do think they will continue to change–as they always have. I’m sticking with the idea that the newspaper of the future will be smaller in size and concentrate on local coverage. It will be a complex media product, i.e. part of news organizations in which printing with ink on dead trees is just one of many ways to offer news to the public.

I think the future of newspaper journalism will belong to those who disconnect themselves from the corporate, mainstream news media.

Paul E. Steiger runs down recent newspaper history in an interesting personal commentary on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today. But the really interesting stuff he saves for the last three paragraphs:

Final word: Next week I move over to a nonprofit called Pro Publica as president and editor-in-chief. When fully staffed, we will be a team of 24 journalists dedicated to reporting on abuses of power by anyone with power: government, business, unions, universities, school systems, doctors, hospitals, lawyers, courts, nonprofits, media. We’ll publish through our Web site and also possibly through newspapers, magazines or TV programs, offering our material free if they provide wide distribution.

Pro Publica is the brainchild of San Francisco entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler, who along with some other donors are providing $10 million a year in funding.

The idea is that we, along with others of similar bent, can in some modest way make up for some of the loss in investigative-reporting resources that results from the collapse of metro newspapers’ business model.

Click here to see Pro Publica.

So what is this thing called newspaper journalism? It is, simply, the kind of journalism one can produce in the medium of print because print is a medium of propositional content. I’ll let Merritt explain:

  • Its content is not shaped by a limiting technology…
  • Its usefulness is based far more on completeness and clarity than immediacy.
  • Its claim on credibility is based on it length and depth, which allow readers to judge the facts behind the story’s headline and opening summary paragraph and then look for internal contradictions.
  • It has intrinsic value and relevance to people rather than merely amusing or entertaining them.
  • Opinions and analysis are labeled as such and are presented separately.

Newspapers will change if for no other reason than they have always changed. I gotta tell ya: I won’t morn the loss of a corporate model that has largely harmed newspaper journalism over the past 20 years. I won’t mourn the loss as long as journalists–citizen and professional–step up to practice newspaper journalism by any available means.

4 Responses

  1. Tim 


    The one distinction I’d offer, call it a question, is the difference between dailies and weeklies in newsprint journalism from monthlies, etc.

    I find Merritt’s explanation more descriptive of monthlies than dailies.

    I also question whether any content can be provided without being shaped by a limiting technology. Some technologies may be more limiting than others, and journalism benefits from the least limiting, but the infrastructural biases (along with structural biases) remain and can be defined along technological and temporal lines.

  2. Tim… That’s a good observation. Merritt seems to suggest, and I would agree, that newspapers ought to be more a source of second-day coverage–similar to weeklies or monthlies. Certainly we might imagine differences in how a daily might accomplish such a thing compared to a weekly.

    I think the technological and structural biases are always in play–always limiting to one extent or another. I think news organizations that would serve a wide audience (metro daily as opposed to small-town weekly) need to become far more complex products mediawise. To a certain extent, the small weekly needs to do the same, but the strength of these news operations lies partly in the fact that the editor eats his lunch in the same dinner as everyone else in town 🙂

  3. Walter 

    Good post!

    But isn’t it mourn, not morn?

    Happy new year.

  4. Ha! Good catch 🙂