If journalism of a satisfactory depth, independence, and scale is going to survive, it will have to be produced by professional journalists employed by profit-making organizations. As such it will require revenue streams that are sufficient for the purpose. As a practical matter this means that newspapers will have to find ways of getting paid for access to their online content. Advertising by itself will not do the trick.
But given the growing number of bloggers, citizen journalists, and news aggregating sites who specialize in opinion pieces (RealClearPolitics, Huffington Post, Drudge) there is a real question of how professional journalists can distinguish themselves from the rest of their online competition.
The view from here is that the question answers itself. Professional news organizations, newspapers especially, should rid their online news pages of opinion and concentrate instead on the production of news and feature stories that run deep and straight down the middle.
Unfortunately this is the precise opposite of what is in vogue today, with media organizations like Newsweek and even the Associated Press moving in the direction of more rather than less opinion in their news stories. It’s a mistake.
Opinion is the cheapest commodity in the world, precisely because everybody has one. No need for inside or expert sources, for special expertise in the subject matter, or even for any real writing ability. Opinion gains recognition in direct proportion to the extravagance of its expression. As such, opinion is the “killer app” not of newspapers but of the blogosphere, which is why a site as undistinguished as Daily Kos attracts such a large number of visitors.
The problem for newspapers is compounded when the opinions they express in their news and editorial pages are too one-sided politically. To give one example, the New York Times, which is losing paid circulation at a ferocious pace, reads these days very much like a house organ in its support of the Democratic party and policies.
To believe that this is not spotted, and resented, by people who are, say, Republicans or conservatives, is an exercise in self-delusion. Even if one wants to argue that Republicans and conservatives are not in the majority today, they represent a very large minority for any business needing to sell itself to the public at large.
In any case, the main point is that newspapers and other professional news organizations should concentrate on doing those things, like in-depth and objective coverage of domestic and foreign affairs, which neither the news aggregators nor the bloggers have the talent or resources to do themselves.
Whatever their future revenue streams — from advertising and micropayments or walled content — it’s going to be necessary for the “mainstream media” to finds ways of distinguishing themselves from their online competitors. One way of doing that would be to practice first-rate journalism and rigorous objectivity in the reporting and analysis of the news.