December 12, 2008

Failure is an Option

A couple of years ago, I’m not sure exactly when, I made this remark (paraphrased): Losing The New York Times would not be a disaster; losing the Springfield News-Leader would be a disaster.

I was trying to make a point about local journalism, i.e. we’ll always have national coverage of some sort, but perhaps we won’t always have local coverage. And local is the big thing. It’s what people want.

I was wrong.

I was wrong (or failed to be right, or failed to consider, or failed to understand) in several senses:

1. Citizen journalism is getting better. Here in Springfield we have a small but active cit-j community that covers many topics of local importance. Some of that coverage is as useful as (although not exactly the same as) what we find in the News-Leader — a Gannett product that the corporate vampire is sucking dry of every last bit of life. Citizens will pick up the ball that professional journalism drops because they have no choice but to do so.

2. National news is just as important as local news; sometimes local news is national. And, in any case, the local is not disconnected from the national and the global. We need effective journalism that covers our entire world. Doug McGill’s concept of “glocal” journalism offers a better way to understand this. We need stories that connect us to the world and to our local neighbors. Sometimes these stories begin with journalistic efforts by media products such as The New York Times. Sometimes these stories begin with citizens (albeit highly trained) such as Doug McGill. Sometimes these stories begin with interested bloggers.

3. The death of a paper is a disaster if it has been fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: to to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. If a paper fails in this primary purpose, then what’s lost are the comics, the TV listings, celebrity gossip, local ranting, and the shopping diva. But you can find this stuff elsewhere.

4. Not all newspaper companies are created equal. Some still cling to some tiny little vestige of the idea that they have a mission beyond simply making money. Of the two under discussion — New York Times Company and Gannett — which has shown it still tries to cling to the primary purpose of journalism?

So I will now reverse myself. Losing The New York Times would be a disaster; losing the Springfield News-Leader would not. We the citizens of Springfield can pick up the ball — already have in some cases because we’ve already had to. (I reserve the right at some later date to decide that both positions are wrong and that the truth may be found somewhere in the middle.)

News flash: The news about the MSM business model of journalism is bad these days. Just scan the headlines on Romenesko. What’s going to happen? I have no idea. But creeping into my mind these days is a dark thought: I think I’d like to see a company such as Gannett fail — utterly fail. I’d like to see it sell all its papers. And I’d like to see those papers purchased by local buyers.

Local ownership is no guarantee of anything except that each paper might then have a slim chance — with active citizens keeping a sharp eye out — to be something its community wants and needs.

4 Responses

  1. Tim 

    Bleg!

    Feeling the Christmas spirit? Here’s a DonorsChoose project that ends tomorrow. Would you at least pass the word?

  2. acline 

    Yes, I’ll pass the word.

  3. Tim 

    Newspaper economics

    I’m content to let many of the nation’s newspapers go belly up, but I’m nervous about a world where many cities are entirely without a few seasoned reporters, who make it their business to ask hard questions and keep an eye on those in need of accountability. Some public support for investigative journalism is likely warranted.

  4. “Citizens will pick up the ball that professional journalism drops because they have no choice but to do so.”

    Respectfully, I think you were right the first time. Other business models can supplant the NYT, and do what it does as well. Citizen-journalists never will replace the small-city newspaper.

    What citizen-journalist has the time, patience, inclination, and know-how to spend three weeks sifting through a stack of FOIA documents to find the three lines that matter?

    Bloggers react to news. When they want to start sitting through school board meetings at night and county committee meetings in the morning and read the police blotter in the afternoon — for no pay, much less no health insurance — we’ll talk about them replacing the newspaper.

    The fact is, these newspapers are already dead. Their staffs have been cut so deep — and always the people who did the work that transcended daily headlines were the first to go — they’re running on nothing now but inertia and reputation.

    Who’s going to watch the state capitals when they’re gone? The county governments? The local factories? By the time the New York Times sends a Jayson Blair down to screw the pooch (even when they do show up, they bring truckloads of condescention and get all the local details wrong), the crisis already has become a disaster.

    You need, behind the reporter, a formidable institutional presence, one that can fight off harrassment lawsuits and libel threats, one that can seek injunctions and subpoenas to shake loose public records. One that can protect the process.

    You need an institution with pockets deep enough to pay wages for three reporters to go digging for a month for a story that may or may not be there. To pay them whether it pans out or not.

    No gang of bloggers is going to have that.

    What’s not dead is the need for steady, reliable reporting on local communities. It’s dying with the business model, though, and nothing is replacing it.