Sunday, November 01, 2009

Some good news for newspapers

Via Socratic Gadfly, there remain some optimists among industry observers.

Each time another report surfaces about the decline of newspapers, I feel like a death-row inmate counting the warden's footsteps.

The latest echo of doom arrived a few days ago: U.S. newspaper circulation dropped 10 percent from April through September, compared with the same period last year. The largest decrease recorded thus far, the decline was attributed to the usual -- advertising and readership lost to the Web. Industrywide, ad revenue, which constitutes newspapers' main source of income, is on track to drop $20 billion by 2010. Even so, most newspapers remain profitable, and circulation is astoundingly good, all things considered.

That's the delightful view of Alex Jones -- fourth-generation member of a newspaper-owning family, Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic and now author of "Losing the News." In his book, Jones, who also heads Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, manages to combine a dispassionate look at the news business with a page-turning story of traditional journalism's highs and lows.

A first-chapter excerpt is here and a lengthier Google Book preview is here. In my read it has a little more fear-mongering and a little less causality: corporate ownership -- specifically 30 per cent profit margins.

His nightmare scenario is that current trends eventually could produce "a yawning disparity in accurate knowledge just as there is in wealth," he writes in the book. "We could be heading for a well-informed class at the top and a broad populace awash in opinion, spin, and propaganda."

Traditional news organizations, especially newspapers, provide what Jones calls the "iron core" of information. Some new media, including Web sites and nonprofits, produce some news and investigative journalism, but traditional media outlets produce the bulk. The reason is that journalism is expensive. Thus far, only traditional media have the money and institutional wherewithal to withstand boycotts or to fight First Amendment battles. Unknown is how some of the newer journalism entities will respond when, inevitably, they are challenged.

Jones doesn't shy away from charges that the media are biased, but he insists that "the media" are not monolithic. Reporters and editors are human and make mistakes, but they also are bound by standards. Accountability matters. Jones, meanwhile, stakes great faith in Americans' ability to distinguish between entertainment centered on public issues and traditional journalism.

He predicts that newspapers will develop new business models and survive. And though every news organization will have alternate methods of delivery, including the Web, each entity should remain true to its "authentic self."

Web culture -- fast, irreverent, crude and subjective -- is one kind of creature. Traditional media are different and should stick to what they historically have done best. Crucial to survival will be a renewed commitment to community, to corporate citizenship and social responsibility, and above all, to quality.

Anyway, having subscribed to a dead-tree version of the Houston Chronicle this past week after several years away, I think I will pay to read all of Alex Jones' book. Hopefully some newspaper managers do the same.

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