Eleven American daily newspapers have shut down since 2007, according to the website devoted to chronicling the demise of the industry, newspaperdeathwatch.com. And with each round of declining circulation and advertising revenue figures, journalists lament that democratic society is in jeopardy. If it werent for us, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote in a 2008 column, the world couldnt be as well informed and democracy wouldnt operate as it should. That, she wrote, sounds self-important to readers.
Journalism is important in a free and open society, but theres room for some perspective. Here are five reasons why the news medias red ink may not spell doom for democracy, and why the current crisis may eventually leave the media better off than before.
1. Journalists have a long history of exaggerating their own importance. New York Herald founder James Gordon Bennett said back in 1845 that papers like his were in fact the government of the country. Newspapers, he added, are always in advance of legislationcreating, shaping, correcting, informing, directing public opinionit originates law, exposes abuses, suggests reforms, sustains the moral forces which keep society together, and sways the destinies of the nation. Only the news industry would generate a book bearing, without irony, the title, What Good is Journalism? How Reporters and Editors are Saving Americas Way of Life (2007) .
Journalists, of all people, should know better than to believe their own press clippings.
2. The history of American journalism shows that democracy can function even when the field falls far short of the professional ideals journalists (typically) embrace today. American colonials fought a war for independence when newspapers were put out by printers (not editors) who collected local letters and essays and scalped news from the latest British paper arriving by boat. After, they founded a new system of democracy when political news consisted mainly of essays (some brilliant, many vitriolic) appearing in papers edited by party hacks and would-be politicians. Journalists are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson saying that given a choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, hed take the latter. They seldom quote him from 20 years later, after hed been shredded by opposing editors: Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
The idea that democracy needs an objective, non-partisan press is a fiction of the twentieth century. Most newspapers were openly partisan well into the late 1800s, and objectivity as a journalistic standard didnt appear until the early decades of the twentieth century. Did the presss many failings in the last 300 years weaken American society? Sure, but thats the pointAmerican democracy survived and even flourished despite a history of journalism peopled by a combination of tyrants, knaves, self-promoters, and liars along with devoted servants of the public good and courageous entrepreneurs.
3. There will always be people interested in holding government accountablenamely, the opposition. The Natio n lamented in an article a couple of years ago that the Philadelphia Inquirer s reduced metro staff (down to 24 people) meant that vast stretches of a metropolis are being neglected . . . [such cuts] add up to a crisis not just for journalism but for the political and governmental processes of the nation.
The watchdog role is important in a democracy for holding powerful people and institutions accountable, but others besides reporters can and do fulfill this function: law enforcement, opposing parties, and even government agencies such as regulatory bodies. While reporters sometimes do uncover wrong-doing (the Washington Post s recent expose of the Walter Reed military hospital is a great example), the news medias normal function is to generate public pressure to punish miscreants after whistleblowers and/or police have nailed the culprits. Besides, how many reporters does it take to expose a scandal? A couple of enterprising twenty-somethings with a video camera caught ACORN staffers offering to help set up a brothel, resulting in Congress stripping federal funding from the community organizers.
Political opponents have an especially strong interest in exposing problems in government. Without impartial providers of such information, some wonder, how will the public know what to trust? How about by evaluating the evidence? (see ACORN, above) Anyway, many people dont trust the news media we have now, perhaps partly because most of our accountability journalism is the result of information those with political agendas leak to the media, who then pass it on to the public with a veneer of objectivity.
4. A new business model for news publications may well be around the corner. The news media shot themselves in the foot when they began giving away their product on the internet, but it was an understandable mistake. For the last 150 years journalists have devalued their own work; they have not (for the most part) based their business model on selling content to subscribers. Instead, they attempt to generate the largest possible audience and then rent eyeballs to advertisers.
Internet advertising, however, has not replaced the ad revenue lost when audiences for print and broadcast news started declining. But the publics willingness to pay for online content is steadily growing; an October survey by the Boston Consulting Group found that half of internet users would pay for content online. The technical tools for establishing paywalls are about to become more readily available, perhaps having an impact on news similar to the effect iTunes had on online music. See paidcontent.org and journalismonline.com.
Most importantly, the industry itself is slowly realizing that it faces a choice between charging online and continuing its slow but steady flush to destruction. It seems likely that serious journalism in the future will be funded primarily by subscriber fees enhanced by advertising income, rather than the reverse.
Whats more, this is a good thing. In an advertising-dependent context, publishers are discovering that their profits are evaporating regardless of whether they spend money producing quality journalism; naturally, newsrooms get cut. In a pay-for-content world, a journalists survival depends on the quality of the news he provides, so his first loyalty is to his readers, not his advertisers.
5. There is a difference between the First Amendment right to free speech and existing media institutions. When journalists bemoan the state of their industry, there is a tendency to conflate the health of the industry with the health of democracy. These are, however, two very different things. In a democracy, where public policy is strongly influenced by the will of the people, journalists are clearly correct, as Kovach and Rosenstiel put it in The Elements of Journalism , that journalism provides the information a society needs to be free and self-governing.
However, the important thing is that the public have access to accurate information on issues of public concern. How it gets out there is less important, and whether todays journalistic institutions continue to take care of it matters even less. Its an issue of free speech.
While there is debate in historical circles about what the Framers of the Constitution intended the First Amendment to it clearly meant at least this: there should be no prior restraint on publishing (that is, forcing publishers to be bonded or licensed by the government); citizens must have the ability to criticize governments and government officials without fear of reprisal; and free speech also involves accountability for those who would abuse these freedoms. As long as we still have those things, well survive. Probably.
Les Sillars is the Associate Dean of the Department of Government, and directs the Journalism program at Patrick Henry College.