Monday, November 16, 2009

Theses on journalism: an experiment in format

(I posted the following on Twitter earlier today.)

Fair warning: I don't really spend much time thinking about journalism.

However, prompted by an interesting albeit somewhat roundabout (my fault, not hers) discussion with @motheroflight, a few theses:

1. @motheroflight: "It's a bad idea to equate the decline of newsprint with the decline of journalism."

2. When newsprint circulation was higher, "the news" wasn't why most people bought a newspaper.

3. Regular purchase and consumption of a newspaper was a cultural impulse: a way to participate in a particular community.

4. This is actually in continuity with the internet and cable news's splintering of the "news" audience.

4a. Historically, most major urban areas had not one newspaper, but several, each with a distinct viewpoint/community.

5. In this way, the decline of the newspaper can be traced to the decline of classified advertising more than a decline in reporting.

5a. I think the history bears this out: decline in the newsroom follows and reinforces declines in circulation, it doesn't initiate them.

6. What we consider "objective," but more importantly, authoritative reporting is a result of national network newscasts, not newspapers.

6a. That is to say, the proliferation of 24-hour cable news was not an innovation as much as an unintentional echo of historical print.

7. The idea of the news as serving the public interest might also be traceable to FCC requirements for broadcast licenses.

7a. This one might be the most problematic, as I don't have research to back it up.

7b. Particularly because I'm not as interested in whether journalists consider themselves as serving the public interest

7c. so much as whether the idea of news reporting as serving the public interest had credence with the broader public.

8. Insofar as journalism is "in decline," what is really happening is that the idea of objective/authoritative news has collapsed.

8a. Part of this can be traced to an argument starting in earnest with Nixon that all reporting is biased.

8a1. Most left-wing media critics/theorists would actually say that Nixon was right, even if he used the argument speciously.

8b. Further stress was put on the idea of objectivity/authority in the postmortem examination of reporting leading up to the war in Iraq.

9. So what we have are three interrelated but not identical "declines."

9a. A decline in newsprint circulation, linked to a community function and caused by the migration of communities to other (free) outlets.

9b. A decline in reporting (newsroom employment) caused by circulation declines.

9c. A collapse of the idea of journalism (and especially newspapers) as custodians of the public interest.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

(While I was posting these theses, @motheroflight pushed me usefully on a few points.)

Motheroflight: re 8. are we talking about newspapers or journalism?

Craiggav: Journalism, as distinct from either newspapers, or reporting.

Craiggav: I've also talked about the decline of newsprint and a following decline in the number of reporters employed by newspapers.

Craiggav: But "journalism," "newsprint," and "news reporting (in newspapers)" are separate terms in this discussion.

Motheroflight: if no one read the news or bought papers for news, how could papers/ journalists be custodians of public?

Craiggav: They weren't, but for a brief historical period (maybe between 1940s and 2006), they were socially accepted as such.

Craiggav: The argument of serving the public interest performed two functions broadly:

Craiggav: 1. It provided certain social and legal liberties to reporters, often de facto and not de jure.

Craiggav: 2. It was an argument to read (and buy) the news. "If you don't read the news, you're not an informed citizen."