Like many of the Washington Post’s columnists, Robert Samuelson certainly sounds as though he’s in a complete panic over Amazon.com’s founder Jeff Bezos’s purchasing of the venerable DC paper, announced last week. He writes:
For years, The Post enjoyed a quasi-monopoly of largely captive readers and advertisers. Now it faces the Internet’s Darwinian hyper-competition. In text and video come torrents of news, information, analysis, advocacy, comedy and criticism. People do not lack for things to read, but the quality is spotty and often unreliable. Good journalism, though hardly perfect, strives to discredit misinformation and half-truths. Papers such as The Post contribute to a free society by undertaking the expensive reporting that others won’t — and which informs us of who we are.
But it’s not free. It rests on editorial independence — the ability to pursue stories no matter how inconvenient — and commercial success. Someone has to pay the bills. Bezos’s task is to respect editorial independence and restore its economic base. He has defied naysayers before. Maybe he will again. Good luck.
He’s right. Good reporting isn’t free. Even bad reporting isn’t free and, sadly, what we’ve been getting for decades is increasingly bad reporting.
Since UPI started pulling in its horns thirty years ago, the Associated Press, whose syndicated articles contain much of the reporting that’s done by a U. S.-based organization, has become complacent. More press releases from interested organizations are being published as news articles. That’s not reporting. It’s dictation.
The Internet, broadly, is no threat to major newspapers and in giving the back of their hands to it, newspapers have targeted the wrong enemy. Blogs aren’t the enemies of reporting. What blogs have done is demonstrated that good writing is not the exclusive province of major newspapers and that, in turn, is a broadside against syndicated columnists rather than reporters. Just about all you’ve needed to become a syndicated columnist is a bachelors degree from Harvard. Contrary to their apparent beliefs, not all smart people went to Harvard and not all people who went to Harvard are smart.
The real threat to the newspapers is not the Internet or blogs or Facebook. It’s Craigslist. If professional journalism wants to attack something, that’s what they should attack. There is no doubt in my mind that Craigslist is vulnerable to attack and a good reporter would be on it like a tick on a dog’s butt.
But rather than looking for external enemies whether the Internet or blogosphere or Jeff Bezos or Craigslist, why not do a little self-examination? I think there are some questions that people in the field should be asking themselves.
What’s the proper relationship between a reporter and a “highly-placed source”? At what point do papers stop “afflicting the comfortable” and start licking their butts?
Is there really a role for a national daily journal of opinion? I don’t believe there is but all of the major contestants seem to be vying for the title.
Why is U. S. professional journalism so flaccid? That’s obvious to anybody who reads foreign newspapers.
What is the role of leveraged buyouts in the decline of big news dailies? I think it’s major. Local weeklies don’t appear to be in the same state of decline as the big dailies are and one of the major differences between the two is that the big dailies have been bought up by news conglomerates and saddled with the debt incurred in the purchase. That and that local weeklies don’t big salaries to reporters, columnists, editors, or publishers. The weeklies of which I have direct knowledge are largely staffed by what are to some degree volunteers.
Would greater diversity of opinion among the reporters, columnists, editors, and staff of newspapers actually produce better news reporting? Today’s newspapers are notoriously monocultural. Remember that newspapers shape the news not merely by what is reported but by what is not reported and that in turn is influenced by the views of the people who work there from the top on down. I don’t just mean Republicans and Democrats. Why aren’t there open avowed socialists? Libertarians? Islamists? Because it would be indiscreet and make people uncomfortable? What the heck kind of journalism is that?