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Saving Sections of the Daily Newspaper
Ethan Zuckerman, 24 Jul 08

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There’s nothing like a meeting on the future of journalism to get you concerned about the future of journalism. While there are some brilliant and exciting ideas discussed at conferences like the Knight Foundation-sponsored meeting I attended yesterday, there’s also a very clear sense that some of the very basic questions surrounding the future of journalism remain unanswered. The biggest of those questions seems to be, “Who’s going to pay for it?” and I’ve not heard any very compelling new answers to the question lately.

Unfortunately, there’s still at least two strands of conversation that seem impossible to avoid at these events, one cyberskeptic and one tech-utopian. The cyberskeptic strand is insistent on reminding us that blogging won’t replace journalism, that very little blogging is journalism and that we must continue training professional journalists. All true, but this argument often misses the point that the bloggers who do engage in journalism are often our best hope for high-quality, insightful, profesional journalism in the future, and that there need not be a wall between the two worlds. Many newspapers seem to be getting this, incorporating staff and citizen blogs into their coverage, and it surprises me that this conversation continues at these sorts of events. (Then again, maybe I’m too optimistic. Mark Glaser’s latest column suggests that journalists may be fleeing newsrooms because change isn’t happening fast enough.)

My other surprise is how powerful tech evangelists can be at these events and how little skepticism there is about future tech in the journalism world. Coming from the tech world, I’m acutely aware that there are millions of geeks who want nothing more than to create The Next Big Thing… and the vast majority of these NBTs are neither next nor big. I think there’s an ongoing sense of shell-shock in the newspaper business from the ways in which technological innovation has changed business models and threatened the world as we know it. If Craigslist could destroy the classified business, what could Second Life do to us? The semantic web? QT codes? Obviously we’ve got to start using all this stuff RIGHT NOW before we get left in the dust again. I’m speculating, of course, but that’s the best explanation I can come up with for ideas like Esquire magazine’s hefty fiscal investment to add a BLINK tag to the September cover of their magazine.

This may explain why I’m so grateful for Mindy McAdams’s “get over it” post, listing ten “facts” about the future of newspapers, journalism and online media. The facts are not entirely without controversy, but they represent a helpful trend, in my opinion - an attempt to limit these discussions, take certain issues off the table and focus on questions where we don’t have good solutions. McAdams points to a pair of Ryan Sholin posts in the same spirit that I’d missed previously. We’re hosting a small conversation at Berkman tomorrow on business models for “difficult journalism” and I’m hoping we can start by agreeing on a large set of issues that are generally well-understood and no longer in need of discussion.

Clay Shirky offers a great example of this sort of thinking with a (fairly) recent piece that begins, “Nick Carr is right. Now what?” Carr is a provocative commentator who gets a lot of things right, including his observation that newspapers don’t currently know how to pay for high-quality journalism with web-based advertising. (This is one of McAdams’s facts as well.) Clay’s “now what?” includes a specific challenge - figure out how to pay for investigative journalism. But he’s got a general question that’s more important: what are the important bits of newspapers we want to save in an era where content is increasingly “unbundled”? More to the point, what are the bits that need saving, that are difficult for amateurs to build or unlikely to be built in the absence of professional intervention?

Investigative journalism is one of fields that I’m not convinced that bloggers are going to solve all by ourselves. While there are some good examples of bloggers adding key technical expertise to a story - Rathergate springs to mind - and cases where bloggers have broken substantial stories - TPM’s work on the Attorney General firings - there’s a lot to be said for a newsroom of paid reporters backed by toothy lawyers when you’re trying to document NSA wiretapping, for instance. This sort of reporting requires long-term commitment, the ability for multiple reporters to interview hundreds of sources, a legal department that can respond in court to obstacles to transparency, and sometimes shield laws to protect authors from having to reveal sources. As much as I’d like to see a smarter shield law that protects everyone who’s doing journalism, I think there’s a good chance that we’re going to need professional newsrooms to perform investigative journalism for years to come. It will be interesting to see whether efforts like Spot.Us, which tries to raise community funds for in-depth community journalism, will be able to sponsor this sort of reporting.

Also high on my list of things to save is well-contextualized international news. It’s possible these days to read most people’s local newspapers. It’s much harder to understand them. Language isn’t the only issue - reading a story in a local newspaper generally assumes local context. And what’s interesting to a local audience can be much less interesting to an international one… and vice versa. (Lots more about this here.) To write about truly important international issues, it’s sometimes critical to have more than just local perspectives - you need a reporter who can weave together stories and examples from different parts of the world. Needless to say, this takes resources - most people don’t have the luxury of roaming the world to report complex stories. And the sorts of collaboration neccesary to tell stories from multiple points of view is possible in amateur efforts, but not very well developed yet.

Two more that might be less obvious: agenda-setting and serendipity. I’m increasingly convinced that we want to preserve two of the functions of the front page of the newspaper. (This is not the same thing as preserving the front page of the newspaper.) One of the functions of the front page is to tell you what basic news you need to be an engaged and informed citizen that day. Another is to offer you introductions to stories that aren’t required knowledge, but might intersect with your interests. I think there’s a general suspicion of these functions of the paper, because they require human editing and gatekeeping. But I also think they’re something we discard at our own risk - see posts on serendipity and the architecture of newspapers for more thoughts on why.

Those four functions are far from an exhaustive list. What do you think we should save from the current vision of the newspaper, and how do we save it?

This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's excellent personal blog, My Heart's In Accra.

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