My debate on the net’s effect on journalism with Jay Rosen has entered the second, rebuttal round over at the Economist’s site.
Here’s my rebuttal:
Jay Rosen grants that the internet has left us with “a weaker eye on power” while increasing “the supply of rubbish in and around journalism”. As a counterweight, he gives us ten reasons to be cheerful about journalism, most of which revolve around the “democratisation” of media. (I will resist the urge to point out how appropriate it is to provide a defence of the net’s effects on journalism in the form of a Top Ten list.)
I join Mr Rosen in applauding the way the net has reduced barriers to media participation. Having written a blog for many years, I can testify to the benefits of cheap digital publishing. But I do not take on faith the idea that democratising media necessarily improves journalism, and, unfortunately, Mr Rosen provides little in the way of facts to support his case. In place of hard evidence, we get dubious generalisations (“journalists are stronger and smarter when they are involved in the struggle for their own sustainability”), gauzy platitudes (“new life flows in through this opening”) and speculations (“data journalism is a huge opportunity”).
One of Mr Rosen’s most important claims crumbles when subjected to close scrutiny. He notes, correctly, that the net has dissolved the old geographic boundaries around news markets, making it easy for people to find stories from a variety of sources. But he then suggests that the effect, on the production side, has been to reduce redundant reporting, leading to less “pack journalism” and “a saner division of labour”. That would be nice if it were true, but it is not.
Much of what has been lost through the internet-driven winnowing of reporting staff is not duplicative effort but reporting in areas that were thinly covered to begin with: local and state governments, federal agencies, foreign affairs and investigative journalism. Having a strong, stable corps of reporters digging into these areas is crucial to having a well-informed citizenry, but since these forms of journalism tend to be expensive to produce and unattractive to online advertisers, they have suffered the heaviest cuts.
As Mr Rosen admits, coverage of state governments in America has eroded significantly. The number of journalists stationed in state capitols fell by a third between 2003 and 2009, creating big gaps in oversight. “In today’s capitol pressrooms,” American Journalism Review reports, “triage and narrowed priorities are the orders of the day.” The situation is similar with federal agencies in Washington, according to another AJR study. Between 2003 and 2010, the number of reporters at the Defence Department fell from 23 to 10; at the State Department from 15 to 9; at the Treasury Department from 12 to 6. “The watchdogs have abandoned their posts,” concludes the study, and “the quality of the reporting on the federal government has slipped.”
Foreign reporting, which is particularly expensive, has also suffered deep cuts. Over the past decade, nearly 20 American newspapers closed their foreign bureaus, and many others fired foreign correspondents. In Britain, daily newspapers have significantly curtailed their overseas reporting, according to a 2010 study by the Media Standards Trust, and alternative online sources are not taking up the slack. Research indicates that “the public do not seek out foreign news online”, according to the study. As foreign news is drained from the popular press, it becomes ever more the preserve of an elite.
If lone-wolf reporting is suffering in the web era, pack journalism is thriving, as evidenced by the swarming coverage of the Casey Anthony trial and the Anthony Weiner scandal. “The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories,” notes the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. What we are discovering is that in a world where advertisers pay by the click and readers read by the click, editorial attention and resources tend to become more concentrated and more keyed to spectacles. The upshot, contrary to Mr Rosen’s rosy assumption, is a division of journalistic labour that is even less sane than it used to be. Gadget blogs and gossip sites boom, while government beats go untrodden.
Despite the many experiments in online journalism, we have not found a substitute for the cross-subsidies that allowed newspapers to use the profits from popular features to pay for broad, in-depth reporting. The cross-subsidisation may have looked inefficient to economists, but as Clay Shirky, a media scholar, recently put it, “at least it worked”. Thanks to the net, it does not work any more.
It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of information that blows in great gusts through the internet. But we should remember that the primary function of journalism always has been and always will be the hard, skilled work of reporting the news. The subsequent sharing, tweeting, tagging, ranking, remixing and (yes) debating of the news are all important, but they are secondary functions—and, indeed, entirely dependent on primary reporting. Unless Mr Rosen can wave a magic wand and repair the damage that the internet has done to reporting and reporters, his argument that the net has improved journalism will remain an exercise in grasping at straws.
The third and final round comes next week.