Obama and journalism
Grant and I had wandered into some discussion about the future of journalism (or lack thereof) in the comments section of my recent “ND #81” blog-entry. So it caught my eye that in an AP report about last night’s comic-roast-type press dinner at the White House – which featured jokes such as president Obama teasing RNC chairman Michael Steele that “Rush Limbaugh does not count as a troubled asset, I’m sorry” – Obama made a more straightforward comment:
Near the end of his talk, Obama turned serious and spoke of the financially struggling media industry, praising journalists for holding government officials accountable. “A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America,” he said.
This is the first time I’ve heard him address the collapse of the newspaper industry – which, if perhaps not the doomsday-scenario that the collapse of the auto industry threatened to present, is a lot more serious and far-reaching than has generally been acknowledged.
Indeed, when bailout money started getting tossed around left and right for the banks and the automakers and the insurance companies and essentially any institution deemed to be “too big to fail,” a few folks who (with good reason) were concerned about such across-the-board expenditures wondered if the government would start trying to subsidize other highly troubled industries as well – like, oh, say, the newspaper industry. (At least of couple of writers mentioned this specifically.)
I have real reservations about that notion – primarily because I agree with the president that there is value in the role of journalists “for holding government officials accountable” … but if the government became involved in funding those journalists, I’m not sure how seriously the public would (or could, or should) take such watchdog efforts anymore.
On the other hand, I sure as heck don’t know what else is going to allow newspapers to survive, and it seems pretty clear at this point that no one else does, either. And so I was struck by the strident verbiage in the president’s declaration: “A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America.”
If he’s serious about this issue, he needs to take a deeper look at what’s happening, because we are very fast approaching the point when that very condition of “without” is in fact the only option. The genie is out of the bottle, and frankly the only course I can see in the next five years is for nearly all major daily newspapers to cease publishing.
That costs the country in two ways. First, it feeds into the continued spike in unemployment. We’ve seen very clearly by now that the loss of X amount of print-journalism jobs does not in any way equal the creation of the same amount of web-journalism jobs. When one of my former employers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, stopped printing in March, they launched a website and shrunk the size of their editorial staff from 180 to 20. And that’s about the correct ratio, I think: Generally the loss of ten print jobs will result in the creation of one web job. So where do the other nine go? Into those ever-increasing unemployment statistics, that’s where.
The other loss is much harder to quantify, but potentially far more costly to society, and it’s what Obama was talking about. As the newspapers go, and are replaced by a web-journalism model that depends first and foremost on the readers themselves providing content for free, we’ll see less and less actual investigative reporting, traded for more and more opinion-rants. The role of the press as a watchdog for not just government officials, but also officials in corporate America – and certainly they’ve needed to be tracked closely in recent years – will dwindle. In the fairly near future, very few major cities will have daily newspapers, and the media overall will be a far cry from “tough and vibrant”. We’re already well on our way there.
And, by the way, while all of this has certainly been affected and accelerated by the recession, the daily newspapers’ downturn is not at its root a recession-related collapse. If and when the economy picks up again, the newspapers will not follow suit. Their downward spiral is on its own track, fueled by a dissolution of revenue streams that are not coming back, and with the web presenting not nearly enough new revenue streams to allow for a simple transfer of platform. For journalism, it’s not the recession that’s the killer, ultimately; rather, it’s the fundamental devaluation of professional journalism itself.
On the one hand, I appreciate Obama’s bold statement acknowledging the importance of the press to American society. But if he really thinks that its disappearance “is not an option,” I just don’t think he has yet grasped what is well in the midst of unfolding. And I suspect that by the time he (and most of America) does, that “not an option” scenario will have already become reality.
Soon enough, nearly all of these will simply be relics: