Goodbye to Newspapers!

One thing I think that people like Russell Baker don't get about the ongoing demise of newspapers, is that technological change actually has created a situation where the world has too many newspapers. He writes, for example, that:

Besides the Los Angeles Times, the papers showing the ravages of extensive cost-cutting include many once ranked among the country's finest: The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Des Moines Register, The Hartford Courant, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the San Jose Mercury News, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example.

Now, I mean, you have to ask yourself why do these papers exist at all? Suppose that besides the Associated Press and Reuters and ABC and NBC and CBS and CNN and PBS and NPR, the only domestic sources of congressional coverage were The Washington Post and the DC bureaus of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal what, exactly, would be the problem? The problem can't be that the world needs more than eleven different people writing the story on last night's Senate filibuster. Rather, the problem is that, historically, it's been hard to get the New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal in San Jose or Miami or Saint Louis.

Baker snarks that "How the Internet might replace the newspaper as a source of information is never explained by those who assure you that it will." But it's clear enough. "The Internet" can't replace The Los Angeles Times's congressional coverage, but the congressional coverage of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post (plus the wire services, plus the non-print media) plus The Hill plus (if you're willing to pay) CongressDaily, CQ, and Roll Call most certainly can. What "the Internet" can do is make it very, very, very easy for a person in Los Angeles to access that kind of coverage.

The existence of "more newspapers" is very good for newspaper writers -- it means more journalism jobs. But if you live in Miami, then the San Jose Mercury News (which still does some excellent work, mind you) doesn't do you any good in the pre-internet era. Thanks to the internet, you can read any newspaper from anywhere. Which is great for newspaper readers. But it means the world doesn't need nearly as much duplication of the basic national news function. Which is -- I don't deny it -- probably bad for journalists. But I think it's good for journalism.

Or, at a minimum, it's good for journalism about national politics. And I'm pretty sure it's good for journalism about international issues. It may well be bad for reporting on local issues.