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Whither news and culture?

It’s hard not to be pleased by reports that weekday newspaper circulation is falling around 5% a year, and music CD sales plunged more than 20% in the last year alone. Broadband net access is killing the established media, with no end in sight. Who needs the newspaper or music industries when better and cheaper content is available elsewhere? Who will miss what they have become? Journalistic professionalism has turned newspapers into a mouthpiece for an aspiring ruling class. Newpaper journalists are J-school grads now, who like getting awards and climbing the professional ladder, and they put up with low pay and extreme competition for the sake of a common mission to rule the world. The Chicago Tribune and LA Times used to be foaming right-wing rags. Not perfect, perhaps, but at least they had views that were different from the New York Times. What are they now?

Still, one wonders. In the case of music the situation seems unequivocal. There are lots of good musicians who like to play for audiences, and whatever is bad for mass markets and the culture industry has to be good for musical life. The sooner the mass-market music biz disappears the better. Yay file-sharing! Journalism may be different. Less demand for newspapers probably means further consolidation among those that remain, and possibly defensiveness and greater uniformity in what counts as professional and responsible journalism. Or maybe the weakening of professional journalism will mean greater reliance on press releases, certified expertise, and the official positions of various organizations, to the extent those things are different from each other.

Basically, though, I’m somewhat optimistic. Blogs have their limits, and the “free market in ideas” is not perfect, but human beings form networks of reliance and trust when something important is at stake. I can’t help but believe that some way of informing oneself about public affairs will emerge from the wreck of the present system that’s at least as comprehensive and reliable as CBS News and the Washington Post.

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Comments

The deterioration in the quality and range of our nation’s newspapers is disastrous, but your comments on the demise of the industry are overly optimistic. If by the blogosphere you mean a conglomeration of independent blogs, this can never replace the full-blooded institution known as a newspaper.
What is a newspaper? Regardless of whether it appears on the internet or actual paper, a newspaper is an essential source of civic or national identity. That’s why people get so enraged when their papers betray the public trust. Without newspapers regularly analyzing and reporting on what are widely regarded as the most important events in a region or nation, identity suffers. The decline of newspapers is nothing less than a woeful sign of community breakdown.
A non-profit organization in Philadelphia recently tried to sell a famous painting by the heavyweight local Thomas Eakins to an out-of-town buyer. Once the local newspapers reported the story, a massive community effort was launched to raise millions of dollars and keep the painting in the city. Only a newspaper (again, either as an online product or actually on paper) is likely to have the power to spread the word about this sort of thing, something large numbers of people agree is important. If everyone in Philadelphia sought their news from a hundred blogs, no one source of news would be trusted enough by large numbers of citizens to get the story right or to determine what is important. There would be a splintering of civic identity.
Now let’s say your region is contemplating a new superhighway. This will involve many millions of dollars of public funds and great opportunity for malfeasance. Independent blogs simply won’t have the resources to subsidize the tedious footwork to research and report such a project. Let’s say, though, that there is a great transportation blog run by some hardworking martyr to the cause. How many people other than transportation nuts will read it? Will the average citizen be adequately informed or will he fall into apathy and ignorance? Will there be a greater chance of public corruption?
The current decline in newspapers must lead to one thing: more and better newspapers. Only this time, most people will read “newspapers” online. Anyone who cares about their community - whether it be their immediate small town neighborhood or the country at large - should hope for the quick revitalization of the newspaper industry that brings with it lots of competition and yet preserves common sources of news.

I’m not sure our views differ much. I didn’t mention the “blogosphere” or say that a conglomeration of independent blogs would inherit the world of journalism, only that “some way” involving “networks of reliance and trust” would likely emerge from the present situaion and provide a reasonably reliable way of informing oneself about public affairs. You’re inclined to call that way “online ‘newspapers,’” putting “newspapers” in quotes. I’m probably somewhat more agnostic what institutional form it will take.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.