The Newspaper Industry vs. the Journalism Profession

[Tim Lee]

Rob Hyndman points to this touching tribute by Howard Kurtz to the more than 100 Washington Post reporters who have accepted buyouts in the Post's effort to reduce its headcount. The Post has a storied history and a bunch of talented reporters. Thomas Rick's Fiasco is a great summary of what went wrong in the early months of the Iraq war, for example, and Ricks was among those leaving the paper. So I'm not unsympathetic to those who feel we're losing something valuable in the gradual implosion of the nation's newspapers.

77045730_493b36037d_m.jpgHowever, I think Kurtz, like a lot of commentators on the changing media landscape, have an unjustified fetish for newsprint. This was prominently on display near the end of Kurtz's column:

The ticking time bomb here is the wholesale abandonment of newspapers by younger people who grew up with a point-and-click mentality. When I was speaking at Harvard recently, a smug graduate student said, "I get everything I need from YouTube. What are you going to do about it?"

"What are you going to do about it?" I shot back. If people want to tune out the news, no one can compel them to change their habits. We can be smarter, faster and jazzier in providing information, but we can't force-feed the stuff. If newspapers wither and die, it will be in part because the next generation blew us off in favor of Xbox and Wii and full-length movies on their iPods. Network news faces the same erosion. Maybe, in the end, we get the media we deserve.

The "wholesale abandonment of newspapers" is simply a reflection of the fact that the web now provides a wealth of new technologies for delivering news and information. Websites are more comprehensive, more customizable, more timely, and, yes, more engaging, than newsprint. Video—whether delivered via cable or YouTube—isn't inherently less serious or substantive than newsprint. And of course there are a ton of textual news sources to choose from that aren't "newspapers" per se.

Kurtz's dichotomy, between "newspapers" on the one hand, and "Xbox and Wii and full-length movies on their iPods" on the other, simply fails to grasp this diversity. There is nothing magical about paper and ink, and there's absolutely no reason to lose sleep over the fact that people in the year 2050 are unlikely to learn about the previous day's happenings by retrieving a bundle of newsprint from their front steps. Journalists are an indispensable part of a free society. Newspapers are simply a technology that many journalists happen to have used to convey their ideas during the 20th century. That medium is now being replaced by a more versatile medium called the Internet, and that's not a bad thing from almost any perspective.

Of course, newspaper partisans contend that the Internet is is actually failing to pick up the slack left behind by newspapers—that we're losing Thomas Ricks and getting "Xbox and Wii and full-length movies on their iPods." But this is more newspaper parochialism than anything else. There has been an explosion of new online news outlets in the last decade, and while few of them replicate the monolithic "all the news that's fit to print" model of the classic newspaper, they collectively cover the same ground, and in many cases they do it in greater depth. It's sad to see a great institution like the Washington Post struggle to balance its books, but the newspaper industry is not synonymous with the journalism profession, and the latter is going to be just fine.

Photo courtesy Elvert Barnes