Mitch Joel talks about a recent lecture given by David Simon, the guy behind that series that nobody watched called The Wire. You can watch the lecture here, though the player is the most rudimentary one I’ve ever seen, and doesn’t even seem to include a seek function.
The point that Joel brings out of the lecture is kind of a passing remark Simon makes, that the idea that so-called “citizen journalists” being able to replace the work of professional journalists is absurd, because these people are mere witnesses and don’t delve into the “why” question that’s much more important than just recounting something that happened.
Simon reserves most of his distaste, however, not toward bloggers or new media, but toward the owners of newspapers (and, by extension, TV and radio) who treat their media like a commodity, a product that needs to be created as cheaply as possible. This, he argues, is the main reason for the downfall of newspapers in an age where the Internet can all but eliminate production and distribution costs.
It’s amazing how much of the daily news cycle is lazy journalism. So many stories originate from press releases, which a company or organization has paid to have distributed to media outlets. So many short news stories are one-source stories with no critical analysis. So many journalists waste so much time phoning the police, asking them what happened and then summarizing it.
And as bad as newspapers are, TV and radio are even worse. They can’t cover as many stories, and they can’t cover the stories they do very well. They have to worry about getting good video or audio, making sure a guest is in studio, and filling airtime.
Plenty of good journalism can be done using these media. The New York Times has lots of feature articles that delve deep into the “why” that takes so much work to find out. NPR, PBS, 60 Minutes, etc. do similarly using the advantages of their media. But these things are expensive and time-consuming, and a manager who comes from a manufacturing industry and sees that an investigative reporter produces only about a story a week will probably consider that person a liability instead of an asset.
Simon’s almost throw-away suggestion about the business model newspapers should adopt is interesting: charge people for access. Sure, you won’t get hundreds of thousands of subscribers, but you also won’t have the kind of expenses you do with a physical newspaper. 15,000 subscribers paying $10 a month is enough to keep a small crew of journalists working on important stories that people want to read.
Very few newspaper companies are embracing that idea. They want control and influence and advertising money. Of the major Canadian newspapers, only one still charges for access to its articles. It also happens to be the only one that’s independent: Le Devoir.
Instead, the megalopoly corporations including Canwest, CTVglobemedia and Quebecor are trying to reduce the cost of producing journalism. They’re slashing reporting staff, centralizing operations and trying to morph into something that resembles Facebook more than it does … uhh … I’m trying to find an example of an online news operation that values quality over style and populism. They encourage people to send their own news (and make sure they sign give-us-all-your-rights-forever-for-nothing EULAs first), and they don’t care that most of that news is church bake sale notices and pictures of dogs in funny sweaters.
Simon seems strangely optimistic about the future of journalism, in that he thinks companies running toward the lowest common denominator will eventually plummet to their deaths, and that people will flock to where they can get the stuff done by professionals.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Will big media go bankrupt, and be replaced by small highly-specialized groups carving out their own niches with excellent journalism, or will they manage to float just barely enough to survive and stumble their way into a business model that works, even if most of what they’re selling is junk?