Friday, February 06, 2009

Requiem for the Printed Word

The cover of Time this week shows not the Person of the Year but a vanishing artifact--the American newspaper--and reflects, in a larger sense, the coming end of journalism as we know it.

After a lifetime of putting words and images on paper--selling them, if you will--the computer screen and the crashing economy are conspiring to make what I did obsolete. (The timely site "Newspaper Death Watch" should be expanded to "Printed Word Death Watch" as magazines and books go onto life support.)

But the obsolescence is more than technical (nobody wept for the makers of buggy whips)--it involves a basic change in how we all get our sense of the world around us and, in many ways, not for the better.

"During the past few months," Walter Isaacson writes in Time, "the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions. It is now possible to contemplate a time when some major cities will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network-news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters."

As a journalist in the last century and a blogger now, I can testify to what this may mean for the future--self-serving information from political and social institutions beset by vociferous electronic critics with few disinterested reporters to mediate their distortions.

Even worse will be the sure death of investigative journalism to tell the public what it has no other way of knowing it needs to know.

Never mind nostalgia for exposing McCarthyism, Woodward and Bernstein et al, look back only as far as the Iraq war to see how journalists, after initially being gulled by the Bush Administration and goaded by bloggers, went about documenting the deception and uncovering what was being hidden.

It's easy to sneer at shortcomings of the MSM--they are serious and many--but if those primary sources go under and take their trained journalists with them, who will do the legwork for the legions of talking heads on cable TV and bloggers in heat?

As Timothy Egan pointed out on his New York Times blog, "there’s plenty of gossip, political spin and original insight on sites like the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post--even though they are built on the backs of the wire services and other factories of honest fact-gathering. One day soon these Web info-slingers will find that you can’t produce journalism without journalists, and a search engine is no replacement for a curious reporter."

That day is practically here.


Shane said...

Couldn't agree more, there is more spin than fact to most 'news' that people receive today and it will only get worse. How else can you explain the existence of Faux 'News'? Add to that the fact that today's consumer has the attention span of a tse-tse fly and you have a recipe for lie-based ignorance.

Russ Wellen said...

Reporters are losing their jobs and the public is losing reporting. Meanwhile, serious bloggers digest and analyze the news. But many of us conduct interviews too.

To help offset the loss of subsidized journalism, we need to do more interviews of newsmakers and those affected by newsmakers -- by phone, email, overseas by Skype, etc. We may not have the incentive of a paycheck from a newspaper or magazine, but we bring our passion.

Armchair reporting may not be the equivalent of being on the scene. But because it takes a lot less time and money, we can make up for our limitations -- to some extent anyway -- by our sheer numbers.