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Big Picture on the Newspaper Crisis

The latest "death of newspapers" story is out of Boston, where the New York Times Company, owners of the venerable Boston Globe since 1993, is threatening to close down the paper unless unions make major concessions.

In another newspaper, the Washington Post, Michael Kinsley offers the ultimate ironic big picture comment about this trend, in the course of suggesting that we can do without the print dailies:

As many have pointed out, more people are spending more time reading news and analysis than ever before. They're just doing it online. For centuries people valued the content of newspapers enough to pay what it cost to produce them (either directly or by patronizing advertisers). We're in a transition, destination uncertain....But there is no reason to suppose that when the dust has settled, people will have lost their appetite for serious news when the only fundamental change is that producing and delivering that news has become cheaper.

Kinsley, of course, is rebutting an explanation for the newspaper crisis that's a bit passe: that people aren't interested in real news anymore. That was something you heard a lot back in the pre-internet days of the 1970s and 1980s, when it appeared that television was destroying the papers. Today the argument is mainly about news infrastructure and "freeriding": that online news and commentary sources, and especially news aggregators, can't and won't make the investments necessary to replace the news organizations that they are "ripping off" and killing off.

I'm hardly an expert on this subject, but it's worth noting that the traditional print news organizations have created many of their own problems, from bad business decisions that have nothing to do with journalism, to professional inbreeding and elitism, to very slow adjustments to technological changes and the quickening of news cycles. I'm old enough to remember when I got nearly all of my information from print newspapers and magazines (and from the library rather than Google!), but also old enough to witness the long steady decline of most regional newspapers into five-minute reads of yesterday's stories, and old enough to resent the stranglehold on political interpretation once maintained by a small handful of Bigfoot Journalists. The Washington Post used to get a lot of us folks out in the boondocks to pay a hefty fee to receive a "national weekly edition" in themail. It still exists, though I don't know how many people still fish in for a subscription. Even if I thought it were possible, I wouldn't want to go back to the days when well-produced "news" was old, slow and expensive.

You'd have to assume that before long online advertising will evolve in a way that will enable it to pay most of the freight for online journalism, accompanied by new forms of cooperative newsgathering that will enable the coverage of international and specialty subjects. It's less clear what will happen to the journalistic guild, with competition from non-guild-members now so prevalent. I once tried to make a lateral career transfer from government service to editorial writing for a small daily paper which was advertising for some help, and was quickly informed that such positions were the rabbits that kept underpaid reporters running around the track for so many years, so nobody without a journalism degree and experience as an ink-stained wretch, regardless of writing skill or substantive expertise, need apply. So the oft-cited grand traditions of the Fourth Estate aren't always about excellence or ethics.

Before too long, we may look back at today's MSM as anomalous and wonder why anyone ever thought it was a good idea to set up news monopolies run by corporate oligarchs and staffed by trained and accredited serfs. But the transition to the shape of things to come is going to be painful and messy.