Thursday, May 31, 2007

The decline of newspapers

This long crie du coeur from journalism professor, Neil Henry, decries the decline of the newspaper and considers taxing Google to make up for the industries woes.
Is it not possible for Google and other information corporations to offer more direct support to schools of journalism to help ensure that this craft's values and skills are passed on to the next generation?

Is it not possible for these flourishing corporations to assist and identify more closely with the work of venerable organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, in support of their mission and to preserve this important calling? I like to think such things are possible. Meantime, I can't help but fear a future, increasingly barren of skilled journalists, in which Google "news" searches turn up not news, but the latest snarky rants from basement bloggers, fake news reports from government officials and PR cleverly peddled in the guise of journalism by advertisers wishing only to sell, sell, sell.
Neil is bad at economics (but probably just fine at being a journalism professor) and so confuses certain points in this article.

Firstly, although he correctly identifies the decline of newspaper's classified business as being the true driver of the industries financial problems, he calls for a tax on Google, not craigslist, eBay, HotJobs, Monster, etc, the websites most responsible for newpaper's ills. Google and blogs may compete with papers for eyeballs, but not for money.

Secondly, he calls for Google to support journalism schools, as if the problem is a lack of supply of would-be journalists. If the problem is that newspapers are laying off staff, then why would adding more journalists to the mix be at all helpful? The problem here surely lies on the demand site.

He gets to his main point:
While that may be true, the time has come for corporations such as Google to accept more responsibility for the future of American journalism, in recognition of the threat "computer science" poses to journalism's place in a democratic society.

It is no longer acceptable for Google corporate executives to say that they don't practice journalism, they only work to provide links to "content providers." Journalism is not just a matter of jobs, and dollars and cents lost. It is a public trust vital to a free society.
I do not want to debate the quality of American journalism, or how vital a public trust it is (or even exactly what that means) but it is worth think about alternatives to the current model that maintain true investigative reporting.

One model is the vanity press, where rich individuals essentially subsidize papers to go out and report the "news". I believe that this is the model ideological publications like Reason, Mother Jones, and the Nation follow, so perhaps it would work for papers as well.

The second model is the BBC one, where basically tax payers subsidize media organizations. This has worked quite well for the BBC (whatever snarky things people have to say about Auntie), but I'm not sure if it would work here in the US.

There are probably other models as well.

Finally, I would add that hyper local weeklies, such as my local Palo Alto paper, do just fine even in this age of Google. True the stories are not of interest at the national level, but that's just their strength -- they tell me what's going on down the street.


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