Swimming in the Press Pool: Torch the Newsroom

Maybe some parts of our newspapers deserve to die.

“What are they going to do when there aren’t any reporters left?” my newspaper colleague asked, shaking his head. “We’re the only ones watching the people who start wars and spend our tax dollars. After we’re all fired or downsized, there will be nobody left to keep the government in check.”

I scoffed, incredulous. “If all newspapers collapsed tomorrow, do you really believe there wouldn’t be one single person left who might want to get the word out about what the government is doing? Maybe the thousands of political bloggers across the country?”

“Some guy blogging in his basement can’t do the same job we do,” he answered.

This conversation (which I’ve paraphrased from memory) happened about a year ago. My colleague was laid off six months later.

I framed an argument last month for how to start thinking about saving the newspaper industry (in short: It’s kinda dumb to think online users will pay for newspaper content; we need to create better advertising and should promote ourselves as much as Apple pushed iTunes). The ensuing weeks saw the debate on this topic explode across the Web and even push into traditional media. One of the highlights was when New York Times press critic David Carr and I happened to call each others’ ideas “idiotic.” (Okay, it wasn’t exactly a personal exchange — see item three here.)

Old-media pundits like Carr and Walter Isaacson of Time also looked to iTunes as a model — but they focused instead on the site’s business model of charging 99 cents per song. They proposed an analogous system of “micropayments” that would force news consumers to pony up at least a few cents for the privilege of reading each news story online.

That prompted a backlash from many new media types, who argued (rightly, I think) that “micropayments” almost certainly won’t work; of the many smart rebuttals on this topic, my favorite is this one by Slate founder Michael Kinsey.

But amidst all this pontificating — from the Greepeace-esque “Don’t Let Newspapers Die” Facebook group to the laughably counterproductive online newspaper blackout — we’ve glossed over a key point. In a comment on my column last month, Crunchable contributor J-Tron nailed it:

[T]he question I keep coming back to is, why should newspapers survive?

J-Tron partly refutes that line of reasoning later in his comment, but it’s a fair question. Nearly all of the debate thus far has started from the assumption that we must preserve and sustain the kind of newspaper newsroom we’ve come to know and love over the decades.

Maybe that’s a flawed starting point. Maybe parts of the old newsroom deserve to die.

This is blasphemy to veteran reporters like my colleague. We reporters are fiercely proud of our Constitutionally-enshrined role of monitoring the government on behalf of the citizenry. We spend years honing our craft, aspiring to be the ideal combination of Joe Friday and John Updike. We’re insulted when someone seems to suggest that an unshaved 20-something, lounging in his underwear in front of his MacBook, possibly could do our job. After all, we took down a president.

The problem is that few of us — these days, not even Woodward and Bernstein themselves — reach that vaunted level. The days of Watergate came as newsrooms were just beginning to mushroom, fueled by the advertising money that poured in thanks to newspapers’ increasing monopoly status in most American cities. Too often, we forget that wealth brought our modern newsrooms into being only recently, as even the smallish daily newspapers sprouted appendages in the 1980s such as investigative teams and travel budgets and faraway bureaus.

Yet even with all those reporters and resources, we didn’t keep our country from going to war in 2003 for reasons that turned out to be false. For years, we let our government get away with torture. Hell, we even failed to convince a significant percentage of Americans that 9/11 had absolutely nothing to do with Iraq.

This is not to disparage the work that I or my colleagues do, or to suggest that we haven’t done any worthwhile journalism in the past three decades. Dana Priest’s investigation into the CIA’s secret overseas prisons has been just one relatively recent example of excellent and important work.

But our success rate has not been good enough to justify an attitude that says the newsroom of the 90s must be preserved.

Newspapers have been stumbling halfheartedly towards a smaller newsroom for years, shedding bureaus and reporters to cut costs, but the ones doing the cutting have never presented a convincing vision for how this new, stripped-down news operation should look. The cuts so far have focused almost exclusively on the bottom line — eliminating the newsrooms’ highest-paid (i.e., most experienced) reporters, for example, and acting as though better spell-checking software can replace copy editors. But a lean newsroom that employs only newbies and has only minimal quality control hardly counts as a “vision.”

A better model might be Kinsey’s online magazine Slate. With a writing staff of just a few dozen reporters and editors (smaller than the staff of the 110,000-circulation daily paper where I work), the site has grown into a nationally-respected publication featuring analysis on government, politics, culture, technology, and just about everything else. It includes original reporting, but its focus is much more on opinion and analysis, delivered in the Web’s universal language of snark.

On the other hand, Slate also relies heavily on other organizations’ original reporting. Plus, the rest of us can’t count on the Washington Post’s parent company to drive Web traffic to us or to (I presume) help out with the bills.

For nearly a week, I had been mulling over these ideas in the abstract. It all became frighteningly personal Thursday afternoon.

My boss’s boss called a meeting to announce that our newspaper is about to become “a digital company that happens to publish a newspaper.” His superiors haven’t explained exactly how or when this will happen, or how they even expect to make money off this new business model.

Also, there will be more layoffs.

I don’t know how many jobs we can shed and still be an effective watchdog on the dozens of municipalities in our coverage area. I’m also not sure it’s wise to abandon our old print business model before coming up with a new one; we’re essentially jumping out of the plane while vowing to find a parachute somewhere on the way down. (Clearly, the people flying this plane believe it’s going down in flames whether we jump out or not.)

Regardless, our newsroom will get smaller. It must get smaller. That’s simple economics, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like every other newspaper in the country, we have to start being smarter about which parts of the old model are worth preserving, and which parts deserve to burn.

The glut of reporters from across the country crammed into White House press events will shrink, as it should — because not every major US city needs a hometown guy to transcribe what the presidential press secretary says. Local movie critics will continue to disappear, even as the great ones see their audiences expand nationally through the Internet. And if local papers like mine are wise, we’ll start better using our Web presence to connect more personally with readers.

Instead of creating online comment forums for our stories, only to ignore them as they erupt, unchecked, into vicious and often defamatory flamewars; instead of continuing to believe that we reporters know more about local news than the people who live outside our newsrooms; we must start thinking of ourselves as equal participants in an online community. Dedicating a few journalists to interact with readers through Facebook or Twitter, gathering story ideas and finding out what our communities really want from us, makes more sense than dispatching flotillas of reporters to cover school board meetings.

I’m not advocating merely creating cute Facebook pages for ourselves. We have to start thinking more broadly about how our role in this online community should evolve. The most effective leaders in this industry will look critically and unsentimentally at the best and worst parts of what we do — not blindly hacking jobs and lunging toward an Internet cure-all, but carving ourselves into a new form that better nests with the new realities of how communities work in a wired era.

Even if that process leaves a lot of us out of a job.

Article © 2009 by Michael Duck