Friday, March 27, 2009

# Posted 1:22 PM by Taylor Owen  

NEWSPAPER DECLINE BAD FOR DEMOCRACY, REALLY?: Nearly two years ago Dave and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR's faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for download (back story on my next post). It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it.

Here is a link to the full version of the article Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn't Get the Internet.

And here's one of our favourite passages:

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy, not a symptom of its death

A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”

Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?

This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted. As we argued earlier, the internet offers its own democratic way of filtering content, allowing what people think is important, relevant and interesting to be aggregated and heard. It may be messy and far from perfect, but then, so is democracy.

Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes. When is the last time you had an opinion piece or letter published in a newspaper? There are many more voices in America that deserve to be heard aside from Ivy League educated editors and journalists.

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

Far from a prerequisite, traditional media is to democracy what commercial banks are to capitalism. Are banks necessary for capitalism? No. Have they sped up its growth and made it more effective? Definitely. But could some better model emerge that performs their functions more effectively? Absolutely. Much like claiming “you’ll never get by without me” rarely reignites a relationship, fear mongering and threatening your customers won’t bring readers back. This approach merely demonstrates how scared old media has become of its readers, their free speech, and the type of democracy they want to build.
(2) opinions -- Add your opinion

A few years ago, I think that statement might have been true. The decline and fall of newspapers would have been a disaster for the ideal of an informed electorate. But with each passing year, major news outlets become less and less vital. By the time we start seeing major cities with no major daily newspaper, I don't think it will matter at all. Already, wherever something is happening in the world, there is a blogger covering it better than any professional journalist.

The prime service provided by the news media today is as aggregator. When I finish reading the NYT, I may not have an in depth knowledge of anything, but I feel like I have an overview of the world and what is happening in it. When I finish my daily blog run, I feel I have an in depth knowledge of particular events, but they are fragmented. I don't feel like I have a handle on the state of the world.

But with all the different feeds and services and newsgroups, I expect that within a few years, the web will have that down too.
There are many reasons for this decline. But the main reason is that people want to read what they agree with. Niche websights can fulfill this need.

Also online news which add value or unique spin like Banana News
( www.bananaws.com) serve young "hip" (so they think) audiences that want more than dry coverage.

The problem with this is that it leave no common public frame of reference. Everyone is talking past each other as it is.
In future they won't even speak the same lanuage.

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