Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Who will PAY for the news?"

By David Corn
April 05, 2007

A few months ago I gave a speech at a university, and before the event I attended a luncheon with members of the Democratic and Republican clubs on campus. There were two dozen students present. We talked about politics and the media. The questions were sophisticated. They asked about political figures in Washington and media players they read and watch. It was heartening. These young adults were clearly well-informed and dedicated consumers of news.

I asked them to rattle off their main information sources. It was the usual suspects: CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Newsweek, Time. That is, the dino-media (a k a the MSM). A few libs at the table were familiar with The Nation, while some cons were fans of the National Review. As media consumers, they were getting a decent mix. Then I asked a follow-up: How many of you pay for media? Only three raised their hands. The rest get it for free from websites. I shook my head.

The information revolution we are all living through is wondrous. Thirty-five years ago, when I was an adolescent Watergate junkie, I couldn’t read The Washington Post’s coverage. I lived outside New York City, and it was impossible to find The Post. I still recall the delight I experienced when I passed through the Atlanta airport during a family vacation and walked by a newsstand that sold out-of-town papers. There was a copy of The Post . I quickly bought it—and was not disappointed that it contained merely a tiny, inside-the-front-section article on the latest Watergate wrinkle.

These days anyone with a computer has access to newspapers across the country and around the world—and much more. And all the news, information and analysis zipping around the Internet is amassed, amplified, digested and dissected by a wide array of aggregators and bloggers—and generally served up for free. It has never been easier for a citizen to be well-informed. One can obtain government reports, drafts of legislation and transcripts of press conferences and congressional hearings directly. You can watch government and public affairs in action on the C-SPAN channels and websites. See candidates speechify; read their position papers. There is no need to rely on journalists to bring you what (they think) is important. During the recent Scooter Libby trial, bloggers sat in the media room, watched a closed-circuit broadcast of the trial and posted a pseudo-transcript of the proceedings in near-real-time. (No media cameras were allowed in the federal courtroom.) Citizens obsessed with the trial didn’t have to wait for my (or The New York Times ’) reports; they could read along with the action.

It’s also never been harder for a citizen to be well-informed—since there is so much freely available news-related material to wade through and so much other media that competes for attention. Borat clips on YouTube, the latest dish on celebrity gossip sites, easy-to-grab music on iTunes, personal diaries and video confessions on, not to mention tens of thousands of programs on hundreds of cable and satellite television channels. To make an old fuddy-duddy point, it used to be that if a person wanted sports news, he or she had to flip through a newspaper or sit through a news broadcast. Now you can choose from a variety of sports-news delivery vehicles (the various ESPN outlets among them) and not be inconvenienced by any non-sports news. If bowling is your passion, you can find sites that will keep you busy for hours. We reside in a media world of niches.

There’s a lot more information—that is, distractions—out there, but still only 24 hours in a day. (Did I mention the Borat clips on YouTube?) Which means it does take time and effort—and perhaps most of all, discipline—to consume a healthy media diet. But one foundation of such a diet has to be solid journalism: reporting that reveals what is going on in the world about us. And my fear is that obvious and easy-to-bemoan market and cultural forces are placing pressure on the production of good journalism.

Keep those students in mind. They benefit from the work produced by big media institutions, but they do not pay for it. They have become accustomed to obtaining information for free. But it costs newspapers, news networks and magazines a lot to field reporters (even underpaid ones) and editors who produce the stories that can then be obtained for no pay on websites and that are grabbed by aggregating sites. There has to be revenue to support these operations and infrastructures.

I’m not crying over the troubling PNL statements of major media corporations. Yet the impact extends beyond the newsroom and the boardroom. The world is probably more complicated than ever. There is more to know, more to cover. Yet newspapers are firing, not hiring, reporters. The Washington Post booted out some of its most experienced hands (enticing them with last-chance buyouts). The New York Times, The Los Angles Times, The Boston Globe, NBC News—cutbacks everywhere. Time recently ordered its Washington bureau to axe four of its eleven correspondents (while the magazine’s honchos in New York hired neocon Bill Kristol, who was wrong on practically everything about the Iraq war, to write a column).

Across the traditional media landscape, this is the scene: fewer overseas bureaus (if any) and fewer seasoned journalists collecting and presenting information. Sure, a new business model may arise, with revenue coming from website ads or pay-to-read fees. But we’re not there yet. And one can wonder how much dislocation will occur before such models emerge—and if the effects of that dislocation will be reversible.

The MSM has screwed up plenty. Look at how it covered the run-up to the Iraq war. And the corporate overseers of media conglomerates tend to worry more about profit than public service. Networks are slaves to ratings. You know the rap. (For a tutorial on the evils of cable news, see the latest, “What We Call the News.”) I’m grateful for the limitations of the big media outfits, for they create a market opening for the work I do. But these large journalistic entities—for better or worse—provide an information baseline for public discourse. And they bring to public attention crucial stories: CIA secret prisons, the NSA domestic wiretapping, Enron’s misdeeds, Hurricane Katrina foul-ups, Jack Abramoff’s sleaze. The citizenry needs them to be healthy.

Let a million bloggers bloom, indeed. And the more websites, the merrier. Let the information free-for-all unleashed by the Internet continue, even if bad information (rants, inaccurate material, unvetted data) too frequently drowns out good information. But we ought to be mindful that bad information—and cheap-to-produce information—can drive out needed information that is expensive to produce. It costs much for media outlets to cover overseas developments, to mount investigative projects, to field talented and experienced reporters to penetrate the darker corners of governments and corporations, and to deploy a sufficient number of journalists to report on key institutions such as Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the EPA and the State Department. Blogs and cut-and-paste-and-dissect websites provide essential services for a media consumer—producing news of their own and analyzing the news produced by others—but we ought to remember that much of what we know of the world we know because of the work of journalists toiling within mainstream media environs. In other words, support your local MSM—as well as alternative media (say, my home base, The Nation ) that employ and deploy reporters to gather and disseminate facts. Without them, there would be much less to blog about.

David Corn is The Nation's Washington editor and the author with Michael Isikoff of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.