Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All the news that's fit to buy


By Bill Kraus

On the top of my list of intractables ahead, even of restoring civility and mutual respect, is what Francis Fukuyama says is essential to self government:

“A universal communication system which takes messages to and from the leaders and informs almost everyone more or less simultaneously and equally.”

To reduce this to a nostalgic anecdote, what I would like to reincarnate is a world where the morning paper sets the agenda for those in power. This was not because the morning paper was omniscient or even half right half of the time. This was not even because the people in power read it. This was because everyone read it.

The morning paper has been eviscerated by the Internet. Not because the Internet is a better way to deliver what remains of the news gathered by a diminished group of reporters but because the Internet has proven to be a more efficient medium for advertisers than the morning paper could ever hope to be.

Advertising money is what paid all those reporters and editors who collected and validated and edited and dispensed what they decided was “the news.”

When the advertising money went elsewhere, the money needed to fund huge news collecting and dispensing organizations dwindled.

The need for what they had done did not.

The adage “If the press isn’t there, it didn’t happen” is still operative.

To suggest that pundits and bloggers like me are an adequate replacement is nonsense.

We don’t report. We opine on what others report.

Did you see a a blogger at the last zoning meeting you attended? I didn’t even see one the other day at a recent hearing on a proposal to change the way the chief justice of the state Supreme Court is chosen.

The morning paper was a uniting medium and the wonderful and amazing Internet is fundamentally a library whose patrons pick and choose from the massive amounts of information available on it.

What is lost is the “common and universal” communication system that the morning paper provided. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that not everyone has access to the flood of information offered on the Internet. Not everyone has or wants or ever will have the essential computer through which the information flows. The other is that there is no commonality in the diverse and segmented Internet information. The morning newspaper was never monolithic, but the news was pretty much the news despite varying editorial emphases.

There is a small but flawed counter trend to keep the morning paper tradition alive and adequately staffed. A few billionaires who can afford to lose the kind of money the morning papers are losing are buying up some morning papers. This does not, however, seem to be an investment in journalism’s future as much as it is an ego trip or worse.

The guy who is buying the Washington Post thinks being important in Washington D.C. will be good for his enormous and expanding business. The wealthy guys who bought the Philadelphia Inquirer are publicly squabbling about why they bought the paper. The cuddly Warren Buffett seems to be buying papers along the route of the railroad he owns which suggests even he has an ulterior motive beyond the journalistic one we had hoped for. The owner of the Boston Red Sox who now owns the Boston Globe may not have any hidden agenda other than friendly coverage of his baseball team. In any event we’ll run out of billionaires before they figure out a way to be Fukuyama’s “universal communication system” anyway.

Maybe the kind of investment the University of Wisconsin and others are making in investigative journalism will be a starting point for this missing link in our democracy. It, or something else, had better be. The system won’t work without it.
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1 comment:

  1. There's no doubt that the absence of a well-read morning newspaper is a loss, and there's no doubt we're in a transition period, as the old inexorably gives way to an uncertain new. I agree we need to give some thought what will be the components of the new system. Yes, absolutely, to investigative journalism.

    Here's my nomination for the most important thing we could do to preserve (restore) the functioning news media we need as a self-governing people: Halt and reverse the concentration of media ownership. Only billionaires play because the corporations that control our news media have gotten so big that no one else can. Our news is plenty 'common and universal' now that it is owned and controlled by managers working from corporate headquarters in New York or Melbourne, but that may be part of the reason why it is so polarizing, irrelevant, and unhelpful, and why we get so much lowest-common denominator content.

    We need locally owned and operated news media if we're going to stand a chance of having a healthy news marketplace again, and we cannot have locally owned and operated news media until we have the regulatory environment that preserves space for them on the playing field. We need to elect representatives who are willing to restore the FCC to a functioning regulatory agency with the mission of protecting American democracy rather than serving the financial interests of transnational corporations.