Newspapers, blogs and democracy

by Pete Talbot

Which does a better job of serving democracy: the (dying) newspaper industry or the (surging) Internet and its related blogs?

“… it is impossible not to wonder what will become of not just news but democracy itself, in a world in which we can no longer depend on newspapers to invest their unmatched resources and professional pride in helping the rest of us to learn, however imperfectly, what we need to know.”

That excerpt is taken from this week’s New Yorker magazine and a fine, analytical article by Eric Alterman.

Your daily newspaper is on the ropes. I’ve written about this before. It’s trying to make the digital transition but hasn’t really succeeded. I’ll read a blog site from a specific reporter but do I read the Missoulian’s catch-all blog, Western Montana 360? Do I visit the paper’s video inserts on its website? Hardly ever. This isn’t what I look for in journalism and it also seems so far behind the curve. Reporters are already overtaxed, don’t make them shoot and edit video, and blog.

But Alterman’s piece isn’t solely a defense of the old “dead tree” medium:

“The Web provides a powerful platform that enables the creation of communities; distribution is frictionless, swift, and cheap. The old democratic model was a nation of New England towns filled with well-meaning, well-informed yeoman farmers. Thanks to the Web, we can all join in a Deweyan (as in John Dewey, an advocate for democratic education) debate on Presidents, policies, and proposals. All that’s necessary is a decent Internet connection.”

Blogs are currently niche driven. I blog, obviously, but I’m also a bit of a dinosaur. Reading the newspaper each morning is as ritual for me as salat (prayer) for a Muslim. It connects me to the rest of the masses, albeit diminishing, who read the newspaper — and not only current news events but sports, features, editorials and letters. I also find out what Dilbert’s up to, if Lindsay is still in rehab and whether the cross-dressing husband in Dear Abby really needs counseling. Reading the newspaper keeps me part of a well-rounded, informed community.

What troubles me about blogging and the Internet is it’s potential for narrowing the discourse. If all I read is Daily Kos or, how can I understand other’s perspectives?

Alterman sums it up:

“And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics.”

It’s a conundrum. I’m hoping for the best — a melding of the objective, professional journalistic standards and resources of the print medium with the accessibility, speed and democracy of the Internet. I fear the worst — the lack of resources of the blogosphere to, for example, set up a bureau in Baghdad or do a five-part series on Darfur; and all we have left is the narrow bantering of self-anointed elites who have no stake in consensus, or understanding of the world around them.

  1. Matthew Koehler

    “Your daily newspaper is on the ropes….It’s trying to make the digital transition but hasn’t really succeeded.”

    See these recent items (links below) related to the Missoulian “trying to make the digital transition.”

    Let’s see…Website design theft…buying up the competitions web addresses…removing blog entries and public comments from the WesternMontana360 blog…

    “Hasn’t really succeeded” is being a little too kind, in my opinion, given what’s going on here at the Missoulian. And remember, these are just examples that have made it public. I blame the management, not the reporters.

    The Missoulian’s Code Caper?

    The Missoulian’s domain game

    From Left in the West, Missoulian: Don’t give the bullies your lunch money

  2. I wrote a post a while back on George Ostrom’s firing (after 53 years!) for reading a news story that didn’t put his station in the best of light. I questioned corporate control of the media and the ethics of newspapers.

    Joe Nickell responded, and one line really stuck out to me:

    I know that there are plenty of stories that the Missoulian has run that do not serve the short-term interests of certain employees or shareholders, but in the six years I’ve been there I’ve heard of no examples of any pressure from management to quash or underplay such stories.

    This was right around the time of the Mayor’s unveiling of his affordable housing initiative, which was suspiciously absent from its pages, and just after the deletion of more than 25 comments from its so-called blog, Western Montana 360.

    I called him out on those two items. He never responded.

    Blogs, and other forms of media should be part of a good newsource. I believe that. Like Pete, I do like to read a newspaper. There’s something tangible about reading ink. On paper.

    I also believe that it’s important to do news correctly, and until they get that down pat, the Missoulian should probably stick to trying and print “all the news that’s fit to print”, without corporate influence and bias, and without censuring reporters.

    That means leaving the blogging to us amateurs. At least for now.

    Even Starbucks realized, with all the pastries and CD’s and books that it had added to its market, that it was getting away from the real reason people used to head to Starbucks. Quality of the main product was suffering.

    I also think that the biggest problem any entity can face is a loss of trust. It’s the hardest thing to get back. This can happen at any level – local or state or federal government, or, as I’ll allege in this case, the Missoulian. People and readers can be forgiving, but when it occurs too many times – advertising disguised as news stories, failure to cover important issues, or failure to cover them in an unbiased manner or failure to address multiple sides or the complexity of an issue – trust is lost. It’s hard to get back.

    I think that trust can be retrieved, but it’s a hard road.

    And considering the recent questions imposed on the Missoulian, that hard road isn’t even in their sights.

  3. JC

    “There’s something tangible about reading ink. On paper.”

    Yeah, you get to wash your hands with soap and water when you’re done, and start the wood stove with it. ;-)

  4. I used to be on your side of this question, but the quality of newspaper reporting is just so low. And no one is going to be stuck reading Daily Kos everyday — the internet is always going to have a much wider range of views than you’d ever get in even a high quality newspaper. And people who only listen to or read one point of view — whether Kos or Fox News — would be doing the same even if they had a newspaper with a genuine range of opinions. Which nearly no one does.

  5. That’s another good point CharleyCarp – the internet does make it easier to read a wide variety of points of view and news sources from their various bias’.

    It’s harder and harder today with newspapers. I mean, how many places actually have 2 daily papers any more?

  6. It just mystifies me why these papers are trying to do more poorly, rather than develop their first product–the news. In Helena, the IR clearly can’t cover any subject with depth or analysis, and yet it has reporters out shooting video and making amateurish videos.

    What readers do they expect to attract like that?

  7. JC

    Well, you put the two trends together–rise of the internet, and the Google advertising goliath, and the decline of the newspaper industry–and what do you get? The newspaper industry is trying to figure out how to get online and get a share of the advertising pie. Ad-supported reporting on paper is going to continue to decline, and the quality is going to suffer.

    A slow trend to be sure. But one that is manifesting itself in things like budget cutting (stealing web designs instead of paying for new ones), reduced reporting, more ad-to copy ratio (especially when you inventory inserts), etc.

    With the rise of Google, newspapers know where the ad dollar is being diverted. And the portion of ad money that is spent online is going to increase. Look at how many millions Obama is paying Google, instead of traditional media buys.

    So of course, the Missoulian will have experiments like Montana360, and online video, etc. Newspapers will have to mimic and replicate what successful models they see online, because they have little resources to draw from. Lee Enterprises can’t just go out and buy an existing business (like, say, NewWest) to compliment its portfolio–though they’d love to, and just may in the future. So it does the next best thing, which is try to convert portions of its existing rag operation into an online one by forcing some of its assets (reporters) into making tangential career moves (how do you like video journalism, Mr. Moore?). Hence we get traditional rag journalism-trained people trying to replicate an online journalistic presence, and they are doing poorly at it. This is going on all over the country.

    And it explains why things like why Realtors are controlling a lot of editorial decisions in the Missoulian–i.e. why haven’t we had an expose about the housing market in Missoula, which just entered the crisis stage of being black-listed as a distressed-declining market (the only one in the state). Realty ads are the single largest bread and butter ad source for the classifieds now. And the people can’t know what’s really happening in the market, or the ad dollars will dwindle as housing prices decline.

    It really is pretty transparent what is happening to the newspaper industry, Missoulian included, if you think about it. And fewer and fewer people are going to be so inclined to spend 75 cents a day to get more and more ads and less and less copy delivered to their front door, when they can get online news for free.

    Me? I’m old enough to still like some paper with my morning joe–good habits die hard. But as generational switches happen, things like daily newspaper reading are going the way of the dinosaur. And as one who puts the paper down sooner, and the computer up quicker, in the morning, I may be one of the defectors the Missoulian really hates to lose–see I have a subscription, and that is becoming rarer and rarer.

    And another topic, anybody else see the Missoulian’s regression back to the editorials of Ellen Goodman and George WIll as very uninspired? Glad to see mona Charen and thomas Sowell gone, but, gack–Goodman and WIll as replacements? No wonder they can’t figure out how to get online.

  8. Is print journalism as we know it dying? Does it matter? Does anyone care?. I’ve been getting most of my news online for years, and my head tells me the change is probably a good thing, but my heart will still yearn for my afternoon daily newspaper that will never again be delivered after April 26.

  9. JC

    This just in:

    The Newspaper Association of America released some new figures recently from their table of advertising expenditures. No surprises here:

    Total print advertising expenditures, 2007: $42b, -9.4%
    Total online newspaper advertising:$3.16b, +18.8%

    And there it is. Print revenues are dropping far faster than online advertising revenues are picking up. It’s telling that the press release tries to paint this in a rosy light. Online Newspaper advertising Jumps 19 Percent in 2007, reaches 7.5% of all newspaper ad spending last year.

    Another interesting fact:

    Total paid circulation has dropped by 15% since it peaked in 91-93 at about 63 million paid daily circulation. In 2006 it was around 52 million.

  10. steve kelly

    Back to the original question: Neither have done a hell of a lot to further the purposes of democracy. Our political choices are fewer than ever. When our November ballot offers voters a representative spectrum of REAL choices, let’s reexamine. Until then, we’re whistling in the dark while circling the drain.

  11. Matt Gibson

    I’m fascinated by this thread, because the subject is near and dear to my heart, but also because I think it demonstrates the fundamental weakness of blogging versus professional reporting that has Pete and Eric Alterman concerned.

    When I read the comments following Pete’s post, I see that people are concerned about their daily newspaper, disappointed by the content and delivery, and free with their opinions. But I don’t see anybody other than a casual observers commenting (with the exception of Pete, who though not an ink-stained wretch himself, has more than a passing interest in the Missoulian). In other words, the participants in the dialogue have limited expertise in the subject they’re discussing. Consequently, the posts offer only a disembodied smattering of facts and virtually no expert commentary. So what’s gained from the conversation? It seems like exactly the sort of narrow exercise in solipsistic self-expression that Pete and Alterman describe.

    When professional journalists do their jobs well, they ferret out reliable information and authoritative commentary to give their readers a solid base of understanding. Not perfect, but solid. As the boss of a couple of them, I expect them to show vigorous curiosity about the subjects they pursue. For instance, if they suspect that the Missoulian’s editorial decisions are being driven by commercial interests, they should ask somebody who might actually know, like for instance the editor or the reporter on the relevant beat, and ensure there’s some substance to it. Unsupported speculation just doesn’t cut it in our business. Bloggers don’t necessarily hold themselves to similar standards, and as a result, poisonous suspicions can receive undeserved airtime. People commonly make exactly the same criticism of media pros, but the difference between doing it right and getting it wrong is night and day. The pros source critical comments and exercise disinterested judgment. The hacks shoot first and ask questions later.

    We don’t always do our work spectacularly well, and very rarely, we even do it poorly, but the intensity of cynicism and disappointment from readers seems grossly exaggerated to me, and makes me deeply concerned about the future of my little newsweekly, much less the daily newspapers in this country.

    Lately, I detect an alarming tendency to pummel the press for all manner of perceived failings by people who simply find a particular point of view represented by a specific source in a particular story disagreeable. People will say we’re sloppy, that we got it wrong, that we breached professional ethics, or that we unfairly discredited a source, when if fact they just hate having their particular perspective challenged, even in an open and civil dialogue. Or they accuse us of harboring secret motives when we don’t find their pet cause interesting enough to write about. By railing against us for preferring more promising stories and fostering honest skepticism, critics of the press can have a chilling influence on the way reporters go about their jobs, particularly the younger, inexperienced folks who typically staff the Indy. It’s not like this is an entirely new development, but I’ve owned the Indy for 10 years now, and I think the negative reactions have stepped up lately, particularly among those I would normally count on the paper’s natural constituency.

    Don’t think for a second that knee-jerk criticism of the media is isolated to a particular sphere. Nobody likes defending their point of view against direct questions in a public forum, and progressives are just as likely as conservatives to flip out when we don’t unequivocally affirm their worldview. Business people of every stripe (the bulk of our paying customers, mind you) carp about perceived shortcomings and slights, no matter how innocuous. People can lose all sense of proportion when they think their money is at stake. We take incoming fire from all sides.

    I’ve owned the Indy for 10 years, and I’ve operated with an assumption that good, solid work will earn the respect of the community, and that my generation of Montanans will appreciate the paper sufficiently to support its fundamental aims, helping it to grow and improve as they age and assume leadership of our community. But I’m worried now that the pressures to pander to special interests, including those represented in the blogosphere, will undermine our work to the point that we can’t sustain the mission.

    I’m not convinced that people get it. On the contrary, I fear that often, they don’t, and I worry that my generation of 40-something business people feel too easily threatened, making them liable to quickly abandon us. Combined with already challenging market conditions, like the movement of our audience to the Internet, where publications can generate only a tiny fraction of the revenue per reader they receive from print; the emergence of online content aggregators who gobble up the ad revenue without doing any substantive work; and the proliferation of bloggers who stand on the shoulders of reporters to generate subject matter for their own musings, only to express dismay with the media’s performance, there’s ample reason for alarm.

    That’s not to say newspapers are doomed. The peril, however, is genuine, and extends to the communities we serve. To make it, newspapers must continue striving to establish our bona fides as vital and trustworthy community resources (same as ever) and adjust to some new market realities. That’s a tall order, and if special interests persistently run us down even when we do it right, they can do some real damage to our efforts to maintain our reputations and sustain our businesses. I wonder if blogging communities like this one, taken as a whole, will tend to push us all into isolated pockets of ideological comfort, or help create something more interesting and nourishing.

    Matt Gibson
    Missoula Independent

  12. Matt, while I clearly lack the requisite knowledge or intellect to answer your charges, I will make an ill-informed effort to do so. You’re right, I (and many of the posters here) do not have the same level of experience with the media that you or reporters for the Lee papers do, but I think we’re smart enough to be able to lift up a newspaper and see the front section than it was just a few years ago, or that local “hard” news is an increasing rarity, supplanted by regional, wire, and especially features coverage.

    Maybe that is happening because of shrinking revenues, but newspapers should stop sparing me the “defenders of democracy” line that I read in editorials over and over again if the bottom line is more important than coverage.

    I also take issue with some of your specific points. When you write, “For instance, if they suspect that the Missoulian’s editorial decisions are being driven by commercial interests, they should ask somebody who might actually know, like for instance the editor or the reporter on the relevant beat, and ensure there’s some substance to it,” I think you describe precisely why so many people who blog are frustrated with news coverage. Sure, you ask the editor, but I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the editor will say no, that’s not true. Is he/she really the ultimate source?

    What’s missing in my local newspapers is original analysis beyond the quotes of newsmakers. When a community says something, shouldn’t the press check to see if that’s right, and call them on it? And not call them on it with a quote from the opposing side, but with factual analysis. Frankly, you almost never see that kind of reporting, leading to controversial issues being framed as “one side says this, the other this” while the reporter, hiding behind impartiality, asks the reader to make a judgment. Facts, however, are not judgment calls, but finding them does take work.

    You also write, “We don’t always do our work spectacularly well, and very rarely, we even do it poorly, but the intensity of cynicism and disappointment from readers seems grossly exaggerated to me,” and I find myself wondering what readers should do, then. Is our role to sit at home and say, “Well, golly, they got that wrong again, but at least they are defending democracy.” Just the as the media should watch the government, institutions, and business, the public should watch the media. What blogs can do, when done well, is point out bias, missing facts, poor coverage, and more.

    Sure, there’s an agenda behind most blogs. Sure, the criticism is often over the top and even angry, but at their best, they can help improve the press, and more importantly, give citizens a voice in the political process. When staffers in Congress, the Governor’s office, and the legislature are reading what we are saying, doesn’t that enhance direct access to the system? Doesn’t it offer the chance to increase discourse?

    You’re certainly right that blogs could not exist without the work of the media, but I think it’s equally fair to say that, in the past five years, the overall quality of blogs has gone up dramatically, while the quality of local, corporate news has gone down, perhaps nearly as dramatically.

    I often see better, more insightful, more challenging reporting in Montana’s independent press, and I think most of us appreciate the work that papers like the Independent, the QCN, and the Billings News do. Why? Because you guys, like us, challenge authorities and established institutions, rather than just ask them for press releases.

  13. Thank you Pogie. Well said.

    I think that Mr. Gibson was both presumptuous and dismissive of so-called “casual readers” when he said “the participants in the dialogue have limited expertise in the subject they’re discussing.”

    I couldn’t get past it. Still can’t.

    But I’ll still like The Independent. I’m a big fan.

  14. Interesting comments, Matt. Remember a few of us bloggres and blog readers and commenters actually receive or have received paychecks from the Independent…so I’m a little at a loss about your comments about perceived criticism. For the most part, your paper is often linked to, often quoted, and has been at the center of serveral important Montana stories. I’d say most of us think that the Indy does a rockin’ job…

    Most criticism I see in the MT ‘sphere is reserved for the national media, esp. the punditry, which shapes the national narrative around which power flows. I have to say, I think the state’s media corps is by and large pretty damn good. Johnson, Morrison, Moore, Adams, McKee, Gouras, these folks do a quality job and sometimes seemed to have responded to bloggers’ criticism. (Remember Charles Johnson’s excellent series of advertisement analysis during the 2006 Senate race?)

    That said, I’ve never failed to admit that bloggers would be nothing without reporters doing the grunt work. And we do criticize. But, as Pogie says, our criticism should help y’all improve your coverage. We’re like a bunch of mouthy ombudsmen.

    But bloggers serve a crucial role that newspapers have abandoned, if they ever held it. Yes, we’re biased and cranky, but we’re believable.

  15. Freeranger

    I owned and ran a weekly newspaper in a ranching community on the Front Range in the mid-80s and got grief constantly for what was or was not included in the paper. One night a rancher chased me out of the bar (he was tipsy) because I didn’t drive 80 miles the previous night to cover the boys basketball game. How about that for intensity of criticism! Critics of the media have always been there and now they finally have a voice and a medium to focus the discussion. Any media owner who does not embrace this change will be rolling rocks up a hill til retirement. Later I worked at The Rocket and The Stranger in the nineties and, my goodness, the complaints from bands, clubs, artists, actors and associated groups.

  16. I think Matt Gibson brings up some really important points and I appreciate his taking the time to share them. I mean, who can argue with this: “When professional journalists do their jobs well, they ferret out reliable information and authoritative commentary to give their readers a solid base of understanding.”

    However, I’m struggling to see how his comments relate to the very specific concerns and critiques that have been directed at the Missoulian. After all, while it appears as if Gibson’s comments are defending the pros at the Missoulian and taking shots at the amateur bloggers, didn’t the Indy last week write the article, “Missouilan Caper Code?” based on a tip from…oh my…a blog?!?.

    And what about these other recent examples of poor reporting from the Missoulian linked below? Without some of our fine local blogs and emerging news outlets such as NewWest, LeftinTheWest and 4and20, the public would have no idea any of these shenanigans are going on with certain people at the Missoulian. Does the public not have a right to know the whole story, especially if they are not getting the whole story from the Missoulian?

    Why the Layoffs at the Bonner Mill?.

    Why is the Missoulian Misleading the Public?. Pay particular attention to the additional detailed examples I bring up in the comments section.

    Couple of questions for the Missoulian.

    True, “when professional journalists do their jobs well, they ferret out reliable information and authoritative commentary to give their readers a solid base of understanding.” However, I think most observers – whether “causal” or “professional” – would clearly see that professionalism was seriously lacking on the part of the Missoulian in these above examples. Of course, the brass over at the Missoulian have a long track record of this type of behavior when it comes to environmental issues. Just ask Dick Manning, who at one time was the Missoulian’s environmental reporter, only to find himself out of a job after he wrote a series of award-winning exposés on clearcutting in the Northern Rockies in the early 1990s. I’m guessing that Manning would be more than just a “causal observer,” right?

  17. I beleive there is a place for both, but cost is strting to bite for the buyers

  1. 1 Intelligent Discontent - The Missoulian’s Embarrassing Rehberg Story

    […] I suppose it’s ironic that a few days after a little dustup with the owner of the Missoula Independent about quality reporting and the response of blogs, I […]

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