Print, News, and Net

John sent me a message asking what I thought about Hal Crowther’s elegy to print journalism, presumably in light of my advocacy of digital media. Without taking the full time that Crowther’s bittersweet column deserves, I’d make a couple of points in response. First, Crowther correctly identifies the problem as to a great extent a financial problem; under cultural conditions when newspapers were expected to serve the public interest mare than to serve as profit centers, they produced more excellent work. When bloodless speculators see a newspaper as capital waiting to be disagglomerated for profit over the cost of the whole enterprise, you’re going to depress the quality of the news that the papers produce. That’s not the Web’s fault; if the citizenry demanded high-quality news reporting, they could demand legislation that protected newspapers.

Crowther shows some attentiveness to media transitions as an ordinary aspect of culture, but still falls back on “internet as cesspools of [bad] amateurs” rhetoric of, for instance, Andrew Keen. If we grant that things are as bad as he says — and that’s not at all clear; print media are not as uniformly excellent as his nostalgia makes them, nor are online media as uniformly unreliable — but even if things are bad, may we allow that digital media have only had a few years to coalesce the business models that will support excellence in news reporting. And established media haven’t exactly been helping shape the financial future of news reporting by their resolute resistance to inhabiting online communication on the terms of the medium. Combine their square-peg-round-hole approach to digital media with the vultures’ chainsaw profiteering, and Crowther has ample reason to regret times past.

All of that, however, doesn’t mean that online media somehow prevent good news reporting. If no one model has come to the fore as a basis for a future reliable, unbiased [!], disinterested venue for online reporting, it’s not because no one is trying, or the medium makes good reporting impossible.

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