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Fish Wrap

In the world of letters, disdain for the popular press comes free of charge with an advanced degree. It's always amusing to see how academics diagnose the problems of the news industry and then offer solutions that look awfully like that well-known, profits-assured business model, the fully subsidized university.

The latest example of this condemnation-prescription combo comes in Commentary, from the esteemed Joseph Epstein.

Epstein describes a news nirvana that survives in his memory and is based on a reality that never existed, a utopia in which ink-stained, ill-educated drunks in newsrooms nationwide produced unbiased accounts of the events of the day that miraculously avoided the pitfalls of journalism--self-importance, political bias, and appeals to man's most base qualities.

Somehow, the entrance of college-educated folk into the news business undermined this era of good feelings and brought us into the world we inhabit, in which the so-called great newspapers are inaccurate, liberal, dumbed down, celebrity-obsessed and irrelevant.

Epstein's solution: smarten up the papers, lead the readers into what they should know instead of catering to what they want to know, and go back to the times when editors decided what people should know rather than letting a million bloggers decide what's important.

I don't know what planet the old man resides on, but I do know this: We live in a world of choices, and yes, many of those choices are false and illusory (Yahoo's news is the same as Google's news is the same as your local TV station's news and so on, because they're all reductions of the copy from your local newspaper, disseminated via the Associated Press), but the way people consume news has changed, and there’s no going back to the wonder days of the 1940s.

More important, those wonder days never existed. The news then was the real lapdog. Neither the left nor the right likes to hear it, but sorry folks, we live in the tail end of the golden age of reporting, which hit its peak in the 1970s and 80s. Go back and read any newspaper from the 1940s or 50s and you will be appalled by the lack of ambition and the unsatisfying prose. There's almost no meat on the bone. Yes, journalism has declined in the past 20 years, as wave upon wave of costcutting has eliminated many of the reporting resources, especially in broadcasting and at local newspapers owned by huge public companies. But even second-tier newspapers still attempt accountability and investigative reporting here and there. And every blogger knows just how heavily the blogosphere depends on original reporting from the declining world of newspapers.

Epstein is right that newspapers are vanishing before our eyes. But his solution is just plain silly. Of course, the answer is to be even more essential and ambitious and daring. But you can't begin to do that if you're laying off 40 percent of the staff every year.

The next phase of our news reality is very much in play. We could end this decade with Google or Yahoo owning vast networks of newsrooms in which reporters churn out more useful and effective local news coverage than anything we've seen before, or we could end the decade with pretty good-sized American cities having no daily newspaper at all and no dependable source of information on the public doings of their communities. It all depends on how the advertising, retail and corporate journalism worlds alter their business models and structures. More on that another time. What we do know now is that the glory days of 1940s journalism are not coming back, primarily because they never existed.

By Marc Fisher |  January 5, 2006; 8:40 AM ET
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Comments

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You're right about the Epstein piece, you could probablt float the Goodrich blimp with it.

The big question for the future of written news media is, of course: How does everybody get paid?
bc

Posted by: bc | January 5, 2006 9:57 AM

I meant "probably" of course.

bc

Posted by: bc | January 5, 2006 9:58 AM

"Your Gold-Plated Cadillac of the Internet" - Marc, are you collaborating with Mr. Achenbach? Your commentary is right on the mark. My question is: How can the press sustain good writers who can overcome the intellectual laziness of the average reader? This ties in with what bc said, "How does everybody get paid?"

Posted by: CT | January 5, 2006 10:48 AM

I agree we have some lazy readers, but the news print I see today, Washington Post, Fauquier Democrat & Citizen, and six different magazines, is so full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and typos that it is ridiculous. Copy editors must have been laid off years ago and spell checkers must be too expensive. Hopefully everyone is doing better with the facts of a story, although I don’t really believe even that.

Posted by: dec | January 5, 2006 1:58 PM

Fine, maybe the great era of newspapers never existed. But today's papers, simply put, aren't that great. Where are the critical pieces on the administration? Where is the Post being a leader to find news instead of following up on leads developed in other nwespapers? Why are most of the critical pieces on the Bush administration coming out on the BBC?

We live in a sound bite tabloid world, and unfortunately, US papers have bought into that.

Posted by: AG | January 5, 2006 2:04 PM

Posted by: Anonymous | January 5, 2006 2:11 PM

For my two cents nobody reads anymore. Reading a book is now a specialty hobby, like golf or fly fishing. You do it in book clubs. Maybe they'll have newspaper clubs in the future where people will discuss current events over coffee and muffins.

Posted by: Bah | January 5, 2006 2:14 PM

You are too generous in saying that bloggers recognize their dependence on newspapers. Some of the most prominent blogs routinely criticize the MSM for failing to report stories that they would never have heard about if it weren't for the MSM. It's utterly ridiculous.

Posted by: THS | January 5, 2006 2:15 PM

YES!! My favorite columnist has a BLOG NOW!!!

Posted by: Dan Telvock | January 5, 2006 4:25 PM

I think that if the MSM doesn't loudly and proudly counter-attack against the liberal bias myth i.e. by doing a front page story that says "Look, there's no liberal bias here", if that doesn't happen then you will gradually see everything turn into op/eds. There will be no more nonbiased news, just a left and right version of the truth. The MSM needs to fight for what they've accomplished otherwise they will lose. Why can't the MSM understand that they are actively and precisely being attacked?

Posted by: Matt B. | January 5, 2006 4:55 PM

Mark,

Well done. I think you fight back with some very practical criticisms. I'd like to add:

1. While everyone thinks "blogs" are the wave of the future, you are right to point out that they are basically parasitic - how many bloggers are out there cultivating and contacting sources, following up on leads, etc.? My guess is not many. Most of them probably just read the NYT and Post in the morning, or maybe even only watch CNN Headline News, and get to work on deconstructing it all. Helpful, but incapable of replacing a 800-staff newspaper. Bloggers are just op-ed columnists without an editor telling them to keep it within 500 words.

2. Something your colleague Howard Kurtz sometimes touches on -- it seems to be the elephant in the room -- is how newspapers are going to make money in this supposedly blissful internet future. If everything is free on the internet, how are you going to pay those 800 people to dig up stories? I don't care how many mistakes they make or how biased you think they are, it takes a lot of people on a payroll to put together a comprehensive set of news. And I'm not sure that's sustainable strictly on a internet-ad revenue basis.

3. We might be entering the era of journalism this country started with -- where each news source was beholden to a certain political party. Because neither side seems capable of accepting that the process of disseminating news is not simply repeating one party's talking points or not simply attacking a president some find unpopular. Each side finds something in every morning paper and decides that is the smoking gun of the media's biases. What it really means is a human being wrote the story, and you have to read it critically, and probably have to read it written by someone else (the true danger of the AP being every paper's sole source), and probably have to read each article over the course of the week or month or year to get something close to a full understanding of the story. But that sometimes challenges your beliefs, and it seems the politically conscious public would rather retreat into their comfortable belief-set rather than have anything voiced with which they disagree or that challenges those beliefs.

But who cares what I think?

Congratulations on the blog, by the way. I've enjoyed it so far.

Posted by: News Junkie | January 5, 2006 5:24 PM

Thanks, folks--it's good to be welcomed.
Several of you ask exactly the right question for this moment: How will journalists get paid, or less selfishly, how do we recreate a structure that allows for real newsgathering rather than the punditry and pomposity that are rewarded in the electronic media (mainly because they're so cheap)?
I'm afraid no one has come up with an answer yet. I'm confident that eventually there will be a business model that works, because there is a strong social need for credible information and a powerful political imperative for news that holds government accountable. But there could easily be a gap of five or ten years before such a model develops, and in the interim, we could lose our news infrastructure in this country. And the bulk of the public would hardly notice, because the bells and whistles of cable TV news and blogs and so on would still be there. We'd have the aura of news, without the content. Some argue that we're already there, but I think any fair consideration of what news staffs like we have here at the Post would have to concede that for all our errors and biases, some very important reporting has come through in recent months. But these are real dangers.

Posted by: Fisher | January 5, 2006 6:54 PM

Mark, the answer is simple: make newspapers community owned. Like the Green Bay Packers. It forces journalists to work for the public and not some publisher on a mission. I've worked for several newspapers and, of course, community owned papers are few and far between, but I see a major difference in the two models. I am not sure if it helps with "credible" information; that depends on editors, reporters and copy editors. But community owned newspapers sure do hold government accountable because they have no choice. Is there any other community owned paper in VA other than Leesburg Today?

But you're right: cable news and radio news just steal our material for their own use without credit. I know, because I've worked in all three formats of media and actually quit my second radio job because I found the practice unethical. I won't return to that kind of radio again.

You are one of the best!

Posted by: Dan Telvock | January 6, 2006 10:04 AM

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