Saturday, December 27, 2008

Newspaper Mourning in Perspective

Glenn Greenwald picks up Politico's rundown of the top 10 political scoops of 2008 and does not like what he finds. Politico:

(1) Katie Couric's interview of Sarah Palin (CBS)
(2) McCain can't say how many homes he owns (Politico)
(3) Obama's "bitter" comment (Huffington Post)
(4) Sarah Palin's shopping spree (Politico)
(5) Turmoil in the Clinton camp (Washington Post and Atlantic -- "The behind-the-scenes tension was captured by the reporters in one memorable exchange: '[Expletive] you!' Ickes shouted. '[Expletive] you!' Penn replied. '[Expletive] you!' Ickes shouted again.")
(6) Jeremiah Wright tapes (ABC News)
(7) The Pentagon's military analyst program (NY Times)
(8) Bickering in the McCain camp (NY Times Magazine)
(9) John Edwards' affair (National Enquirer)
(10) Powell endorses Obama (Meet the Press)
Each of Politico's favorite "scoops" is at least a few removes from a matter of substantive public interest. Greenwald draws the contrast between the professional journalists who spent the year focusing on this personality-driven, weightless dreck and a hypothetical news media that might have devoted equal passion and resources to, say,
such dreary, boring revelations as the choerographing and approving of torture techniques at White House Principals Meetings; or the creation of a massive, likely illegal domestic surveillance system of sprawling data bases built and maintained with no Congressional approval or oversight by the NSA; or the issuance of a memo by the Bush DOJ endlessly expanding the definition of "torture" and declaring the Fourth Amendment inoperative to "domestic military operations" inside the U.S.; or the massive contributions received from the telecom industry by Sen. Jay Rockefeller immediately before he became the key advocate of immunity for that lawbreaking industry; or the flagrant abuse of unchecked NSA eavesdropping powers for purely prurient and invasive ends; or the patently false denials by the U.S. military -- bolstered by an ostensibly first-hand report from Oliver North on Brit Hume's "news" broadcast -- of massive civilian deaths in Afghanistan; or the endless holes in the attempts by the FBI to blame the anthrax attacks on a dead scientist; or so many other similar boring disclosures.
All of which serves to contextualize the hand-wringing over the declining prospects of newspapers and the journalistic profession, as in the recent New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki, who finds fault in the internet and the sluggish business responses to it:
Newspaper readership has been slowly dropping for decades—as a percentage of the population, newspapers have about half as many subscribers as they did four decades ago—but the Internet helped turn that slow puncture into a blowout ... many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.

There’s some truth to this. Local papers could have been more aggressive in leveraging their brand names to dominate the market for online classifieds, instead of letting Craigslist usurp that market ...

These mistakes have been undeniably costly, but they’re not the whole story. The peculiar fact about the current crisis is that even as big papers have become less profitable they’ve arguably become more popular. The blogosphere, much of which piggybacks on traditional journalism’s content, has magnified the reach of newspapers, and although papers now face far more scrutiny, this is a kind of backhanded compliment to their continued relevance. Usually, when an industry runs into the kind of trouble that Levitt was talking about, it’s because people are abandoning its products. But people don’t use the Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more.
They use it more! (Someone with a combination of business and technological acumen should be able to crack that nut, but I digress.) The faults, Suroweicki goes on to say, lie with ourselves above and beyond the internet bogeyman:
The difference is that today [newspaper readers] don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.
Fair enough -- we will get the journalism we are willing to pay for. But it's worth noting that the journalism we're currently paying for, judging from Politico's ten highlighted moments from 2008, is not worth the price paid. It is, to put it plainly, shit. We are asked to bewail the financial demise of entities that, the year before, devoted substantial time, money, and spittle to inform us that Barack Obama's preacher said controversial things, that people within the McCain-Palin campaign disagreed over campaign strategy, that other campaign operatives exchanged obscenities, that a craven toad endorsed one of the candidates?

No. To these I say -- as I say to my local newspaper, which can't seem to find anything fit to print beyond sale circulars, titillating crime tales, and inaccurate weather forecasts -- good riddance.

This, too, must be seen as part of the reason why paid journalism is declining: its really-existing products are not worth having. If the internet is riddled with unreadable, useless trash -- and surely it is -- at least the price is right.

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