The Media We Deserve


Andrew Sullivan, whom I esteem, wrote yesterday: "Congrats to the WaPo for the kind of work that will actually save newspapers." That gets it exactly backwards. I'd prefer to congratulate the Washington Post for the kind of work that makes newspapers worth saving. But if the Post did this kind of thing more often, it would go bankrupt.

The truth is that in-depth investigative reporting has always been unprofitable. The Post team that produced the series over the course of the last two years included "investigative reporters, cartography experts, database reporters, video journalists, researchers, interactive graphic designers, digital designers, graphic designers, and graphics editors." But the paper won't be able to sell extra advertising to offset the costs. Indeed, some of its largest advertisers are likely to be displeased by the coverage. It won't sell more subscriptions - not the least because the most compelling content in the series is freely available online.

Newspapers, during their fat years, survived by bundling. There were the profitable sections - the classifieds, the auto pages, the lifestyle coverage - cheap to produce, and literally made for advertisers. They subsidized the costs of the news and analysis, which helped attract readers for the paper to monetize. And as newspapers merged and shut-down, the survivors took advantage of their dominant position by abandoning their lively partisanship and aiming to attract as broad a swath of readers as possible. That effort produced the journalistic practices that tend to drive the blogosphere nuts—the pose of objectivity, the comfort with authority, the reluctance to challenge convention.

Andrew is hardly alone in implying that newspapers are currently suffering for these journalistic sins. But newspapers are actually attracting ever-larger audiences for their content. The problem is that the bundle has fallen apart—the sections that once subsidized the news have had their revenue streams choked off. The classifieds have gone to Craigslist. WalMart and Macy's have consolidated their sectors. Auto and real estate listings moved online. And Google has given small merchants a cheaper way of reaching customers. With their monopoly gone, and profit margins under pressure, most newspapers have slashed their newsroom budgets. The fattest targets are the most expensive—out-of-town bureaus and investigative reporting.

What happens now? There are still a handful of newspapers that don't behave like publicly-traded corporations. Controlled by family trusts, they retain a sense of civic responsibility, and continue to fund in-depth investigations. But their ranks are thinning, and those that remain are under increasing pressure to behave in a more business-like fashion. Then there are the new non-profits—most prominently, ProPublica—which are trying to fill the void. They partner with existing news organizations to split the costs of the investigation. So far, most entrants are philanthropically funded, and tilt left. But think-tanks across the spectrum have begun to notice that for the price of producing hefty reports that sink with hardly a trace, they could instead partner directly with news outlets, and guarantee in-depth coverage. We'll see more of this in the coming years, and it will be a decidedly mixed blessing—we'll be restricted to the investigations that someone wants to fund.

So I find that in-depth reporting of this quality evokes a decidedly bittersweet response. I am delighted that there are still newspapers willing to funnel what remains of their profits into such pursuits. But I can't escape the irony that it was a rapidly-contracting press that chronicled this latest expansion of government. And it worries me.

This post first appeared here under the name Cynic.

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to under the name Cynic.

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