April 13, 2010

Double Take: The Sorry State of Journalism

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Munier: Andrew, today is a special day here at cornellsun.com. The Daily Sun has ditched the print edition to focus its editorial might on web-only content!

Andrew: Wait, this doesn’t show up in print? Count me out…

Munier: As we dive, head first, into the five-foot deep swimming pool of online news, my thoughts linger with the sad reams of paper, no longer spinning up in Corning. Online news sites began as a cute afterthought, composed by forward thinking interns with too much free time. But since then, news sites like nytimes.com and the Drudge Report have swelled into an enormous presence on the web. News agencies experimented with all sorts of profit schemes, ranging from pay-walls to traditional advertising. None of these methods has produced profits. In the meanwhile, traditional news sources from radio to cable news networks have suffered a drop in patronage, leaving the industry to ask: Can reporting, relayed in any medium, deliver a pay check? Or is journalism doomed to economic failure? Will smaller revenues force news agencies to drop their print editions? Can the web mature into a destination for quality news consumption? Will a new version of the iPad feature wings and greater absorbency?

Andrew: For what it’s worth, I saw an ad promising the 4G version would have greater flexibility and comfort. But in response to your other questions, I too worry about the quality of the news I read and watch. And this is almost certainly related to the difficulty turning a profit on news. I feel like the number and type of stories reported on nowadays is far narrower than a) what I would like, and b) what I think I remember from the days when print reigned.

Munier: Truth. Just a few short years ago, The New York Times (wet dream of all Daily Sun reporters) was soaring on high profits, planning their new office tower in Midtown. Today, Renzo Piano’s flashy new skyscraper stands proud, as the third-tallest building in Manhattan (exactly the same height as the Chrysler Building) but the newspaper inside seems to be regretting their hubris. Meanwhile, smaller papers nationwide are folding left and right. People have begun taking bets on which major city will be the first to exist sans daily rag. San Francisco? Denver?

Andrew: I wonder if Ithaca will ever be on that list. My guess is not any time soon. Aside from the Ithaca Journal, my guess is that The Sun, and loads of other campus dailies, will outlive their profit-focused peers. And why is that? Free labor. I don’t know about you, Munier, but I’m not getting paid by the word or by the article. And I don’t see The Sun writing big pay checks, even to its most dogged editors. So what’s the upshot? Have college kids and do-gooders running the presses?

Munier: Oh, God, I hope not. Your point about The Sun is descriptive. I too believe The Sun will survive. It’s the perfect storm of captive audience, free labor and an active set of rich alumni willing to donate. The Sun is a for-profit business. But is it an example of fine investigative reporting on the cheap? Methinks not. The majority of news stories are reactionary —  based off daily events, press releases, decisions made by President Skorton and the University administration, crime reports and Town Hall happenings. Sun reporters, as full time students, don’t have the time or expertise to “hunt down Pulitzers.” There is no invesigative unit at The Sun.

The fact is, real investigative journalism is expensive. It involves offices in major cities throughout the world; it needs reporters criss-crossing the globe chasing elusive evidence. The majority of this meaty reporting (some say roughly 80-95 percent) is accomplished solely by daily newspapers. The rest of us, ranging from Bill O’Reilly to Maureen Dowd to Rush Limbaugh to that anonymous blogger featured on CNN just process, analyze and disseminate that core reporting. Without this expensive machine, internet news sites become mills without grain to grind. In effect, the entire system collapses.

Andrew: And I think that collapse is well underway. If you’ve got a TV, turn it on CNN “newsman” Rick Sanchez and watch him report. He’s hocking media derivatives — complex news algorithms that, while rooted in some real, substantive story, end up getting bundled, tied and swapped based on variable snarkiness and reliability rates set by some “authoritative” source. They’re news stories about news stories about news reporters talking about news stories, trading in a quixotic market of oneliners and snapshots. Rant over. But there’s a serious point to be made here, namely that as the quantity of reliable, hard-hitting reporting entering second-tier papers, cable news outlets and the blogosphere decreases, the diversity and quality of the commentary decreases as well. A little news gets churned over and reduced to insignificance. More succinctly, news is good.

Munier: Precisely. Plus 10 points for the lords-of-finance analogy. But is this permissible? No. Since taking environmental econ, I’ve been on the lookout for public goods, Andrew. Sort of a liberal economist’s primary weapon. Quality journalism in the web era is a great example of a public good: impossible to turn profitable, but worth its weight in gold in the modern economy. Both democracy and capitalism rely on a hefty assumption: the citizens (or consumers) are well informed. Without quality journalism, citizens vote for bad candidates and consumers purchase products that will not, in fact, deliver them satisfaction. And this is a big problem for a nation that aspires to be number one at pretty much everything we do. We can’t survive without an amazing press. So my question for you, Andy, is how to we make this mo’fugga profitable? My answer (in true socialist fashion) is to endow newspapers. They need no profit margin to be beneficial. But something tells me your free market values might want a different solution…

Andrew: Something told you right… One thought that’s been circulating (in my brain) is how we tend to look at reporters. At some point (again, in my brain) reporting as a profession becomes upper-middle class, with options on wealth and a book deal. At some point, newspapers considered offering and paying six-figure salaries to reporters who, in my opinion, are doing what amounts to a hard scrabble, blue collar job on par with the detectives on Law and Order — not schmoozing with or becoming, but needling the rich, famous and powerful. And they should be paid and honored that way.

Munier: Oh that was harsh. Minus 10 points (you’re back to zero). I completely disagree with that notion. Journalism is one of the most intellectually challenging professions I know of. They’re scientists of society (I guess that makes social scientists verbose monkeys with lab rats). If anything, journalists are under-compensated. Again, quality reporting is essential for a well-greased “advanced, liberal democracy” (as the monkeys would term it). We need more talent in reporting, not less. I ache for the days of The Pentagon Papers, Edward R. Murrow and “live from the jungles of Vietnam.” The news industry has failed to inform us. They also fail to captivate us. In general, they just sort of fail. Is it really all the internet’s fault? Or has there been a failure of imagination among industry leaders?

Andrew: Failure of imagination? Not sure. Is the internet the Pepsi to print’s Coke? Most definitely. In case you don’t consider Malcolm Gladwell the Aristotle of our generation, I’m referring to his writing about the Pepsi Challenge. While people, in a blind taste test, prefer Pepsi over Coke for its sweetness, over the long run people choose Coke. Pepsi is sweet enough to win a taste test, but it’s too sweet to drink multiple cans at a stretch. Internet news may dazzle and delight our senses for a decade, but people may find that print (or traditional print sources moved to the web) is more tolerable over the long run. It goes down smooth.

Munier: Print journalism as Coca-Cola? Does that mean it formerly included cocaine and originated the Santa Claus outfit? Sounds good to me. Plus newspapers don’t give you diabetes.

Andrew: Nope, just the feeling that you’re a little bit better than everyone else who hasn’t read one today. That’s sweet.

Original Author: Andrew Daines