The NYTimes is threatening to shut down the Boston Globe unless it gets $20M in cuts from its unions. The Times is bleeding money and The Globe is a major and open wound.
Both the NYT and The Globe are just some among the many newspapers either circling the drain or already down it. (The irony of Globe predeceasing the rival Boston Herald would be staggering. The Herald — a former employer — has been on its deathbed for at least 25 years. It has reportedly only survived the current downturn because the price of newsprint has fallen through the cellar.) The Rocky Mountain News is gone, both of the Philly papers are bankrupt as is the Chicago Sun-Times, The LA Times, the Detroit newspapers … and the list goes depressingly on.
There are now so few papers with reporters in DC that the Washington press corps could hold its meetings in any moderately sized Dunkin’ Donuts (no way can they afford Starbucks). The journalism biz looks to be going the way of the domestically owned automobile companies. While I could easily get all gushy and nostalgic about newspapers, I won’t. I am clearly not an impartial judge on the topic. I had a lot of fun working for them and learned a lot reading them — let’s leave it at that.
The problem with the disappearance of something like newspapers may take a while to be noticed. It is hard to say what the impact of un-reported news will be. The immediate impact will actually be the lack of a threat. The worry that something might get into the press has served as a damper (however slight at times) of the excesses of business and government. Given the fiascoes of the last nine years alone — when we had a nominally well staffed and curious press — it is terrifying to think of what comes next. Much of the press blew the run-up to the George Bush Desert Classic but they all seemed to get it when in fact no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found and suddenly the nation’s population realized it had been hoodwinked.
The press fills an important niche in our information age and the end of it in one form means it will pop-up in another form. Some people want to turn newspapers or whatever they will be called into non-profits and have them run by foundations (I’m never quite sure where these foundations are going to get the $ from). Still others think something like the NPR beg-as-you-go model will do the trick. Still others say that blogs and citizen journalists will fill the gap.
I would have more faith in this last if I had not spend quite so much time watching novice journalists becoming accomplished ones. Just like any other craft, journalism consists of skills that must be learned. While a self-taught electrician may become as good as one apprenticed to someone else I do not want to provide my house for him to do his or her learning on. I do not know if I am a good journalist but I do know I am a damn site better that I was when I started out 24 years ago. I am better because I had people show me how to ask questions, how to listen to answers, how to spot a discrepency, how to verify facts and to face the facts even when it means the death of a really pretty hypothesis. Business and the government have entire departments devoted to nothing but spinning the facts, institutionally those departments are all living for the day when they only have to deal with “citizen journalists.”(See footnote)
Something will eventually take the place of all these newspapers which have trained so many reporters and kept an eye on those boring things most of us have no interest in. (Sewer committee and zoning board meetings — you don’t want to go to them. Hell, I didn’t want to go to them and they were paying me to do so but when those guys screwed up you certainly wanted to know about it.) What scares me is the interim. Ladies and gentlemen, the great barbecue is set to begin and you will definitely be served.
FOOTNOTE: None of which is to knock the phenomenon of the citizen journalist. My good friend Karen Gadbois is one such and she is one of the best there is. Karen lives in New Orleans and writes the truly excellent blog Squandered Heritage. What she does is listen to words of various pols and bureaucrats about what they say is being done to repair New Orleans and then goes to look and see if it is actually being done. Then she writes up any differences between promise and reality. Her work is good enough that she has been the source of information that other reporters have used to win some major awards — including one from the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization and a Peabody Award. (Why her name isn’t on the awards is a little beyond me — but never mind). It is more than a little sobering, though, that Karen has not made any money off her endeavor and is wondering how to keep it going.