Sunday, May 10, 2009

The newspaper crisis, David Simon, the role of blogs, and the (somewhat misread) Brooklyn example

So the biggest discussion this past week about the role of blogs was generated not by the fourth annual Brooklyn Blogfest, held Thursday in DUMBO, but by the Senate hearing on the newspaper crisis held Wednesday in Washington.

But it’s worth connecting some dots between the the above, especially since Brooklyn blogs (including this one) were invoked--not always accurately--in the national debate that followed the Senate hearing.

The most contentious issue, via Gawker and the New York Times’s Opinionator blog (as noted below), concerned the claim by former Baltimore Sun reporter and “The Wire” producer David Simon that he doesn’t see bloggers covering nitty-gritty local issues like zoning board hearings.

Some critics responded that bloggers, in places like Oakland and Brooklyn, in fact do that. I’ll grant that, but I think the Brooklyn contribution to watchdog journalism was overstated and, as I wrote recently, Atlantic Yards is an anomalous case.

The Senate hearing: newspapers or journalism?

Early in the Senate Commerce Committee hearing (video), Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who has proposed a law that makes it easier to convert for-profit newspapers to charitable status, suggested that “our newspapers are a check on not just local government, and the federal government, but on corporations, on businesses, on community activity.”

He’s right, but he’s wrong: the issue is journalism, and newspapers have been uniquely positioned to provide that service, but that’s going away. And they haven’t always provided that service; after all, even when the New York Times was relatively robust, from 2003-05, it wasn’t covering the Atlantic Yards story very well.

Loss of journalism

The New Yorker’s Steve Coll (ex-Washington Post) suggested that it’s not a zero-sum game:
[T]he rate of destruction of professional journalism, by which I refer to the independent reporting on government, corporations, and international affairs produced mainly by newspapers during the last four decades, is far outpacing the ability of new institutions to reproduce what is being lost. This independent reporting, complex investigations using public records, the identification and vetting of whistleblowers, the tracking of legislative debates, and lobbying at the local, state, and national level; and independent, transparent witness reports of important events here and overseas, has played a very important role in shaping American governance and foreign policy since the 1960s -- at least. Its sudden diminishment seems, to me, an urgent matter of public interest.


Coll was skeptical that “new journalistic institutions and practices” can fully replace newspapers, especially in international coverage. He suggested strengthening of support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, bolstering grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and having the Federal Communications Commission “strengthen the public service requirement for broadcasters operating with licensed spectrum.”

Enter Simon

Simon criticized the “martyr-ology” of newspaper executives, noting that he took a buyout for profit-hungry owners in 1995, well-before the threat of the Internet and Craigslist. He also slammed the optimism of new media proponents, calling for “a plague on both their houses.”

He said:
The Internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future -- but thus far it does not deliver much first generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating web sites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary, and froth.

In a shot at Google and the Huffington Post, Simon said:
Meanwhile, readers acquire news from aggregators and abandon its point of origin -- namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

Simon would like the industry to charge for content, and suggested nonprofit models for online journalism.

He noted that national political coverage is not so much in question:
There’s already an economy of scale that allows for a Politico online. What is dying and what is not being addressed up here by the people supporting new media, is the fact that at the state and local level, it's America's regional newspapers that are collapsing.

...That means that all of a sudden there's nobody covering the cop shop, nobody covering the zoning board. The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we've actually reached some sort of equilibrium, you now. There's no glory in that kind of journalism, but that is the bedrock of what keeps, you know -- God, the next ten or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician.


Debating past each other

James Moroney, publisher and CEO of The Dallas Morning News and also as a member of the executive committee of the Newspaper Association of America, said Congress should make sure that publishers have a way to get “reasonable compensation from Internet companies that reproduce their content for their own commercial gain.”

In response, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington not unreasonably said journalism is not dependent on newspapers, but suggested:
[W]e are actually in the middle of the golden age for news consumers -- who can surf the Net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world, and be able to comment, interact, and form communities.

It's a golden age in certain ways, and in other ways it's not.

Huffington said a variety of models will work in the future, and pointed out that the current media missed “the two biggest stories of our time, the run-up to the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown.”

All true, but that begs the question of local reporting.

Engaging Google

Kerry asked Google VP Marissa Mayer if there’s “a fairer way to try to spread the cost.” She said that readers have to click through from snippets.

Kerry responded that the advertising revenue doesn’t support it. Mayer acknowledged that “it's still very early” for business models, suggesting that cable television, where people do pay a subscription fee, is one example.

Moroney said he didn’t think Google’s reproduction was fair use. Huffington said news aggregators drive traffic to original content but acknowledged that “this is a transitional period” regarding monetizing that traffic.

Mayer said “more than $5 billion was run through Google ads alone, on publisher sites” last year.

Moroney asked if she could “tell us what percent of that $5 billion is going to newspaper publishers,” suggesting that her use of the term “publishers” means anybody publishing any kind of content on the Internet. He never got an answer.

Other models, including Gotham Gazette

Huffington cited some promising local models including Voice of San Diego. Alberto Ibarguen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, cited non-profits supported by the Knight Foundation, including Voice of San Diego, MinnPost in Minneapolis, Chi-Town Daily News in Chicago, Village Soup in Maine, and Gotham Gazette in New York.

Well, yes and no. Gotham Gazette does a decent job of following issues but hardly has the infrastructure for much original reporting.

Reporting vs. opinion

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked Huffington “what percentage of your blog is opinion and what percentage is factual.”

Huffington deflected the question by assuring Klobuchar that “opinion is to be fact-based” and assuring her that errors must be corrected within 24 hours.

Klobuchar should’ve asked what percentage was original reporting, based on interviews or firsthand observation of documents or events.

Later Klobuchar, the daughter of a journalist, noted:
But I just still don't understand how that is, on a national level, going to get to the kind of investigative reporting, and when my dad went undercover as a prison inmate for a week or when we have these intricate issues in our police department that people want to report on...

Charging for content?

Huffington was incredulous that newspapers could again charge for content (though, since then, Rupert Murdoch has said he’ll try to extend the Wall Street Journal subscription model to other News Corporation publications):
I think the argument that the Baltimore Sun could charge for content that would only be available to those paying subscriptions to the Baltimore Sun seems to me so antiquated; it seems to fly in the face of all the consumer habits.


Kerry interrupted her, getting Huffington to acknowledge that it’s “intellectual property,” and asked “why is it antiquated to believe they have a right to be paid for their product?”

Huffington: The fact that they wish that was the case is not antiquated; the fact that this cannot happen is antiquated because that's not how people are consuming news.

Mayer: I think you could say, well, with the product we have today it's not working. But you could try and preserve the business model as it exists today or you could attempt to change the product in a way that maintains the core of what's wonderful about journalism -- but ultimately becomes more engaged and adapt online, generating more demand.

Kerry asked if reporters would still hold people accountable. Mayer said the issue wasn’t the newspaper industry but the act of engagement, and there will be demand for “a product that can increase engagement.”

Moroney said his company’s web site does that, but wants “fair compensation for the content that we publish that becomes available digitally for other people to use in what ways they want to use it.”

The public interest and the nonprofit model

In conclusion, Coll observed:
The public interest is not located in the business competition between big well-funded corporations. The public interest is located in the reporting on public matters -- on government, on private power, on public institutions, on international affairs, particularly at the local level.

And we're in a period of transition. While I don't share Ms. Huffington's optimism about citizen journalism and fact-based opinion, I applaud her innovation and I hope that she proves me wrong. We're in a period of experimentation, a period of transition.


Simon added:
Newspapers actually shrunk prior to the arrival of the Internet and they did so because they were not nonprofit. The public interest, in their essence, was not the priority. So I am absolutely with Mr. Coll on this. To the extent that the nonprofit model can be brought to bear, that probably is the only future that's going to get you there.


(Here’s his February 27 op-ed on the issue in the Washington Post.)

Disappointed observers

The Newspaper Guild's Andy Zipser reported:
Indeed, one of the most notable differences among the panelists was their engagement with the facts on the ground. Huffington's airy dismissal of the collapsing newspaper industry as in need of "a great deal of experimentation with new revenue models" jarred against Coll's measured warning that "creative and destructive forces are at work on American journalism simultaneously -- and at a stunning pace." In other words, there simply may not be enough time for experimentation.

Hamsher’s skepticism

Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, a noted blogger on national politics, was particularly skeptical, writing that the hearing “evidently turned into a bunch of self-congratulatory wanking about how important newspapers are to our American way of life.”

She wrote: This whole "bloggers are just parasites" meme is a tedious, unsubstantiated fantasy. Someone go tell Marcy Wheeler.

True, Wheeler fills a valuable niche in national reporting, but it’s not local reporting. (Hamsher has tried to raise money to support Wheeler and two others to go full time. The campaign, aiming for $150,000, has less than $67,000.)

Hamsher also rightly criticized Kerry for positing a “cacophony without standards," quickly posting a list of unskeptical mainstream journalism reports about Swift Boat attacks on Kerry, followed by a list of bloggers who deconstructed those attacks.

In that case, when documents concerning a national controversy are made available online, smart bloggers can dissect flaws in journalistic reports and editorials. But Simon was commenting about the difficulty of getting local reporters to do the often tedious work of showing up at governmental meetings--something that the mainstream press itself often no longer supports.

The AYR example

Hamsher wrote: ...Simon seems to have reached the conclusion that any news organization that doesn't cover the pie eating contests of Baltimore is woefully inadequate, those were the days, etc etc. I don't recall anyone ever covering the Atlantic Yards as meticulously as Norman Oder, who has written quite thoughtfully on the subject of local online news coverage. Perhaps if the Atlantic Yards project moved to Baltimore, Oder would pass Simon's litmus test.

But New York needs a lot more bloggers with journalistic skills willing to follow complicated stories (like Yankee Stadium, as I pointed out in the post Hamsher linked to), and there’s no business model for that.

In Gawker, a Brooklyn invocation

Gawker (via its ValleyWag sibling) wound up defending original reporting. Ryan Tate wrote:
I found this argument odd, because as a newspaper reporter who spent a few years covering a town much like Baltimore — Oakland, California — I often found that bloggers were the only other writers in the room at certain city council committee meetings and at certain community events. They tended to be the sort of persistently-involved residents newspapermen often refer to as "gadflies" — deeply, obsessively concerned about issues large and infinitesimal in the communities where they

...You'll find communities of civic-minded bloggers in all sorts of places. The New York Times recently profiled the Brooklyn blog Gowanus Lounge, described elsewhere as a publication of "hard news scoops and opinionated rants" with "influence into City Hall and the executive suites of the city's biggest developers." The site was part of an ecosystem of any number of other local news blogs.


Well, I wouldn’t call it a “community” of “civic minded bloggers.” The Gowanus Lounge is defunct, after the passing of the extraordinarily hard-working Robert Guskind, who was unusually well-prepared for journalistic blogging, given his professional training. Guskind has not been replaced.

And Tate’s hyperlinks went to Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn (a fledgling business) and Brownstoner (a successful business), neither of which are fundamentally news blogs. The authors of those blogs periodically go to civic meetings, but don’t consider their main job to hold public officials accountable. Both do convey useful information, break some news, and foster community conversations, but also significantly aggregate and repost others’ work.

OTBKB’s Louise Crawford and especially Noticing New York’s Michael D.D. White have done a better job covering a few local city council elections than weekly print newspapers--they’ve been ignored in daily print papers--but there are still enormous gaps.

Need for skepticism

Journalists should have a b.s. detector. OTBKB reprinted, without skepticism, sponsor Outside.in’s dubious list of the top ten topics on Brooklyn blogs.

The web site Examiner.com, which assures us that its writers are "credible, passionate, knowledgeable," published an account, from its single "Brooklyn Neighborhood Examiner," headlined Lessons from Brooklyn Blogfest 2009 that also included Outside.in’s list. 

None of the many bloggers who attended the Blogfest, as far as I can tell, have joined me in questioning Outside.in's list. 

Skepticism from Gawker commenters

Commenters on Gawker were skeptical, pointing out the absence of “a sustainable business model for investigative watchdog journalism” and suggesting that the “San Francisco and New York markets are not good examples of how local online investigative journalism works in general.” 

Another added that, in most cities, the local blogosphere consists of petty arguments and complaints, with no questioning of politicians.

One commenter observed:
I think every time somebody floats an example of a blogging success story I'd like to know how the blogger(s) pay(s) rent. Often I find that when you dig deeper you find out that a person is able to produce good, original community news it turns out to be somebody who for whatever reason doesn't have to work for a living.


Valuable point. I’d say they either don’t have to work or, in the absence of significant family responsibilities, essentially work two jobs.

Gawker echoed in the Times

The New York Times’s Opinionator blog ran with Gakwer’s take, first quoting Simon:
[H]igh-end journalism – that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history – no more than the last fifty years or so – a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task.


One commenter pointed out that the issue goes well beyond local news, that the loss of professional journalists will be felt most in international coverage, where bloggers will be far less likely to step up. (Global Post, an effort to organize on-the-ground stringers, is a response to the loss of foreign correspondents, but the jury’s still out.)

A commenter calling himself Homer Bigart (a homage to a great reporter) seconded Simon:
There is some fledgling content from bloggers on state and local issues. But it is only by covering an institutional beat, day after day and developing sources, and working those sources, day after day, that reporting takes on depth and discovers all that with which modern institutions are contending. And that is a fulltime job...

I.F. Stone and the dailies

Another commenter cited I.F. Stone--an inspiration for me--who plowed through documents to get his scoops, just as bloggers do today. The commenter noted:
I.F. Stone was exceptional, and even he read the dailies.

That’s true, and Atlantic Yards coverage and commentary would be significantly diminished, as I wrote, without, say, the New York Daily News’s publication of Bruce Ratner’s op-ed or the New York Times’s interviews with Ratner.

Citing AYR

A commenter identified as “Dan” wrote:
Even the best bloggers who arguably do have a “beat,” like Norman Oder of the Atlantic Yards Report, have a distinct bent. They may have the facts, but they aren’t presenting news so much as their own arguments.

Oder, as we know, is a huge exception as someone who does real digging. Gowanus Lounge is another rara avis. But for all the value of Bob Guskind’s thoughts, reflections, opinions and photos, he was chronicling an area poetically more than he was really investigating it or exposing corruption. His reports on the mess that is Coney Island, e.g., may have discovered that this or that stall had been evicted, but he relied on newspaper reporting (like that of the Times) to fill him in on what is going on with the City, Joe Sitt, etc.


I present news as well as commentary and analysis, as do publications like The New Republic and The American Prospect. It’s not my “argument” to report on a public appearance by the Atlantic Yards ombudsman or the courtroom debates in the eminent domain case. Nor is it my “argument” to inform people of Forest City Ratner’s lobbying.

I’ll agree with “Dan” that Guskind produced more context than investigation, but he did some of the latter--perhaps most usefully, he, along with some other bloggers on real estate, pointed out the shortcuts and outrages of the New York City building boom.

More re the HuffPost

In the Opinionator comments section, Michael Lindenberger suggested that Simon “is far more right than he is wrong” and pointed out a distinction:
And a few exceptions do not undermine the legitimacy of Simon’s overall point: HuffPo does not add meaningfully to the sum total of journalism — local or national. Instead, it adds mightily to the sum total of perspectives on the news, makes it easier to find news from a wider variety of places, and offers modest contributions of its own.
Those are not inconsequential achievements, but they are hardly substitutes for the kind of journalism done by newspapers.


Debate about Oakland

There was also some debate about Tate’s examples; one commenter questioned the Oakland blogger’s reports. Another noted that the blogger acknowledged she went out to celebrate rather than report on the mayoral budget, but a working reporter wouldn’t have done that, nor would have wanted to.

An Oakland blogger, Max Allstadt, defended the Oakland contingent, noting valuably that the lack of a word limits means bloggers can cover a story in more depth than the print press--I’d point people to the prolific Michael D.D. White--and suggesting that the Jayson Blair scandal shows that there are no more pitfalls in citizen journalism than in mainstream journalism.

I'm not so sure. Though it’s true that online journalism involves public factchecking, newspapers are supposed to have developed professional standards. As noted, none of the Brooklyn bloggers have questioned Outside.in's list.

Democratization of information

Allstadt responded to critics by pointing out that he
attended an Oakland City Council meeting with at least four bloggers present. I didn’t see a reporter. Most City Hall reporters in this town watch the meetings on a webcast… or they read the blogs and crib from them.


If only we had webcasts in New York of all important civic meetings. I’d bet more journalistic bloggers would emerge.

Pundit Jeff Jarvis suggests the future of metro journalism includes some level of public-supported journalism; bloggers (including laid-off professional journalists), supported in part by advertising; individual volunteers; and increased transparency from government.

The latter is an important point. If more documents were available, and more meetings web cast, it would be easier for citizen journalists to keep track of issues even if they can’t show up.

The debate in San Francisco

In the Huffington Post, former San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein questioned Kerry’s hearing, suggesting that a more valuable event would be a panel held Thursday in San Francisco.

At the panel, as reported by Swati Pandey on the blog for the Zócalo Public Square Lecture Series, Coll pointed out that newspapers came in a particular historical moment:
I don’t think there’s anything magical about newspapers, or an entity that simultaneously publishes crossword puzzles and dispatches from Baghdad.

Panelists cited, not without skepticism, new models like Spot.Us and Voice of San Diego. Slate founder Michael Kinsley--[updated and clarified] without pointing to any specific new model or offering specifics-- questioned whether new endeavors had professional standards but noted that Internet factchecking happens quickly. (Updated 5:20 pm after Internet factchecking!: Many new endeavors, including this blog, do meet professional standards, I'd contend.)

Could a blog have broken Watergate or the torture scandal? Coll suggested that reporters are protected by larger entities, while Kinsley responded that there’s a benefit to not being part of “a major corporation with shareholders.”

(Um, when it comes to Atlantic Yards, the Times has a problem. Then again, the Times has many more resources to pursue documents and go to court.)

Bronstein, according to the video I watched of the panel, cited the Gawker/Valleywag post about blogs that do cover the Bay Area, but, as I noted above, there are flaws in that analysis.

Covering the event, Scott Rosenberg contrasted the focus on what comes next with the Senate hearing’s emphasis on saving current companies.

He wrote:
Coll mentioned that in the Senate hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill had described the value to her of the two or three reporters (out of a much larger herd) who knew their stuff and paid close attention to what her office was doing: they kept her “scared” (in a good way). All of which made me think, hmmm, isn’t this exactly what’s happening to journalists themselves, as their work gets scrutinized by a crowd on the Web — many of whom don’t know what they’re talking about, but a handful of whom actually know more than the journalists, and can keep them honest — or scared?

Yes, and no. If the New York Times allowed comments on all its stories--not the easiest situation to monitor--the feedback loop would be a lot stronger.

So, what's the conclusion? We don't know the future of journalism. But we know it's always good to keep checking and contextualizing facts.

1 comment:

  1. The fate of newspapers is has already passed the final point of inflection.

    The fate of journalism has a few more years to go before we can clearly see the future.

    I can think of many people who would be happy to be a "journalist" for a salary of $50k stated above. They are much younger and have lower economic needs.

    They are the future. Hopeully they can scrape some institutional knowledge off of the passing/exiting/soon to be extinct dinosaurs.

    And there will probably be a several year lull in quality journalism as the world resets to these new economics.


    It will be interesting to see the return of the hard-scrabble reporter as opposed to the one the monopolistic heavy profit newspaper market has fostered for the last few decades.

    ReplyDelete