Whither Journalism? Part II

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.

Eating Their Seed Corn

From the New York Times comes word this week of big changes looming at one of the country’s oldest newsweeklies.  “Newsweek,” they say, “is planning a redesign and some shifts in content to fashion an opinionated take on events, aimed at a much smaller, and wealthier, readership.”

In truth it doesn’t come as a surprise.  In many ways it isn’t even news.  But it’s disappointing all the same to see one of the country’s mainstream media outlets consciously, and proudly, abandon the time-honored journalistic standard of objectivity.

Nobody’s going to run off and join the circus in consequence of this development because, as seen during last year’s election campaign, virtually all of the mainstream media have demonstrated an ability to abandon objectivity whenever it pleases them.

As mentioned here before, nowhere was this more lamentable than in the coverage of the presidential candidates’ take on economic issues.  When this point was made in an earlier blog, some people took it to be a partisan observation.  But it wasn’t, and isn’t.

Even if the media had done a credible, and objective, job of pressing both candidates on their plans for the economy, Obama would still have won.  Maybe even by a larger margin.  This, because no matter how little Obama may know about economics, John McCain knows even less.

But look how much better off we’d be if the press had challenged Obama to give more than lip service to these kinds of issues.  In addition to a better informed public, we might also have an economic stimulus plan that reflected more of the thinking of the president than of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

The political and societal ramifications aside, there is another downside to the media’s embrace of opinion over objectivity: It’s unlikely to work, online or off.

As evidence consider what one supposes is a model of future Newsweek reportage, a story by Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas.  Provocatively titled “We Are All Socialists Now,” the piece purports to document a profound shift in our collective view of the correct form of government.

What’s striking about the article, however, is that it is about 90 percent opinion, with little or nothing of substance to it.  There’s no there there; nothing that informs, analyzes, or even segues.  Just a kind of fluffy amalgam of the pedestrian and superficial, in which most of the intellectual energy seems to have gone into the title.

A good exercise in times such as these is to ask oneself how much you would  be willing to pay for a thing if you had to pay to receive it.  The question can be asked of all kinds of things.  Were it asked of this Newsweek article, the guess here is that few people would offer to pay anything.

A few months ago a Microsoft executive gave a speech to some online publishers in London in which he said that publishers’ decisions to give their online content away for free had been a disastrous mistake.  And now we have the first, but undoubtedly not the last, of the mainstream media to openly embrace opinion journalism as a model for the future.

The question not yet answered is what – after they have surrendered first their content and then their journalistic patrimony – the media will do if all this fails to halt the slide?