Monday, September 07, 2009

The "iron core of information," newspapers, blogs, and sunshine

Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer, who has evidence that newspapers just may not be crucial to democracy, turns a skeptical eye to Alex S. Jones's "despairing book about the future of journalism," Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy.

Shafer writes:
In Jones' view, these old-fashioned collectors and disseminators of "news of verification" produce the "iron core of information" that sustains our democracy and fuels all the derivative media. Without the iron core, no editorial page, columnist, op-ed artist, blogger, talk-show host, or aggregator will know what to say. Without the iron core, Jones fears, the public will have little clue about what governments, corporations, politicians, and the wealthy are up to.

New forms of journalism may prevent the iron core from corroding, Jones writes, but he doesn't have a lot of faith in "citizen journalists" or the reinvention of traditional media to halt the coming media apocalypse. It generally takes money to make consistently great journalism, and Jones lays out how the iron core was made possible by an economic model—now in tatters—that tossed off immense profits for decades to support foreign and regional news bureaus, Washington bureaus, investigative coverage, and all the rest we associate with quality journalism.

Well, that's probably true, but the iron core isn't so iron, as we've learned from coverage of issues like Atlantic Yards.

As Shafer notes, even Jones concedes that only about 15 percent of a quality newspaper--and presumably less from the rest--contains that necessary iron core.

Better than the press?

Though others offer evidence that journalism promotes democracy, Shafer sees counter-evidence, and proposes a theory;
I won't accuse quality journalism of poisoning the democratic impulse, but as long as Jones is going to hedge, I will, too. Could it be that deep-dish reporting that uncovers governmental malfeasance and waste—the sort of news Jones and I prefer over fluff, sports, bridge columns, and comics—doesn't promote activism or participation? Could it be that such exposés end up souring the public on democracy and other institutions?

Not to be snide about it, but is quality journalism the best tool to foster democracy? Advocates of participatory democracy and government accountability might be smarter to invest their time directly in reforming government. For instance, wouldn't the passage of tough sunshine laws that required Web publication of all nonclassified government information and proceedings do more for accountability than preserving the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Detroit News?

That's a very interesting point. Democracy requires both information and a light on that information. Important information isn't important until someone who commands attention or some trusted institution validates it.

The system is already broken--the news about Carlton Avenue Bridge was ignored--but it may have to break more before it can be reconstructed.

Imagine a world in which there are fewer established media outlets but more sunshine. Some institutions, whether they be online journalism or civic organizations, would have to emerge to validate the importance of the information uncovered.

But perhaps more people would have been reading the documents of the Empire State Development Corporation and more oversight would have emerged.

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