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Black and White and Red Ink All Over: Newspapers in Peril

September 08, 2009 // 3:00pm5:00pm
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Even before the present recession, the print news media were declining in the United States. Newspapers and news magazines have become thinner and less numerous, overseas reporting bureaus have closed down, and funds for investigative journalism have declined. How are these trends affecting our nation and our democracy?

Paul Starr reviewed the critical functions that the press has historically provided in democratic societies, especially the United States. Newspapers have been the chief engine of journalism, particularly of the investigative variety, because they were able to cross-subsidize reporting with revenue from other sources. Newspapers also assembled a broad public by exposing readers to common information. Finally, the press has been able to keep governments accountable because of the "deep pockets" that advertising revenue provided them to fight potential lawsuits from entrenched interests. The best predictor of corruption in a given country is not per capita income, but the free circulation of the press.

For Starr, online sources of information have not picked up the slack. Resources for old media, he noted, were disappearing faster than they were becoming available for new ones. More important, the way that information is presented online does not lend itself to the "incidental learning" that characterizes print publications—the possibility that a person buying a newspaper for the crossword puzzle would read the stories on the front page. Instead, audiences and information have become increasingly fragmented and niche-oriented, creating a society stratified by uneven access to news.

Several factors make the United States especially vulnerable to the decline of the print media, Starr said. The nation has neither the tradition of public-service journalism nor established subsidies—either public or private--for journalism. The federal structure of American political institutions has decentralized the press as well. Consequently, there are both fewer potential funds for newspaper reporting and more outlets clamoring for them.

Starr offered several recommendations for corrective action. The United States needs new sources for financing news. Foundations and universities could help, but nondiscretionary subsidies from the government, such as tax relief for news publications, might be necessary. Internal checks and requirements for transparency in government, such as the posting of public information on the Internet, would aid accountability. How to bring back incidental learning was still a puzzle to him.

Leonard Downie, Jr. summarized a recent study he helped conduct for the Columbia School of Journalism. The results, he said, pointed to "a glass half full," an "incredible ferment" in the delivery of news.

Downie focused on the city of San Diego, which he said was in the vanguard of innovative online media. One of its new outlets, the Voice of San Diego, has uncovered scandals and won awards despite having only twelve reporters and one-tenth the readership of the local newspaper, the Union-Tribune. The Voice is funded by community and national foundations, local donors, and advertising, and husbands its resources through tight budgets and a focus on accountability reporting. Meanwhile, the San Diego News Network aggregates items from newspapers, radios, blogs, and other publications to provide easy access to a range of news about the city. At San Diego State University, a former Union-Tribune reporter has set up an investigative reporting operation that sells its news back to her former newspaper for less money than was spent for such work when it was done in-house. These new entities contribute to a "diverse ecosystem" of news in San Diego, but it is fragile because some of the start-ups may fail.

Other business models are flourishing elsewhere. In Minneapolis and Southern California, Downie reported, public radio stations have become "the new news powerhouses" and have managed to fund their operations through syndicated entertainment products such as The Prairie Home Companion. Seattle has a news organization in every neighborhood, most set up by former newspaper reporters, and these operations are making money and sharing links with major newspapers. Arizona State University hosts a student-staffed, professionally-run news service that sells its product across the country. Its Cronkite News Hour broadcasts three nights per week. Finally, the nonprofit Investigative News Network provides back-office and overhead support, including services, to member organizations.

Gabor Steingart began his talk with an anecdote about a call he received recently from the Der Spiegel accountant, who asked him, "Do you think your interviewee [Arnulf Baring, a respected author and political observer in Germany, and a supporter of chancellor Angela Merkel] was worth an 80-Euro bottle of wine?" The incident prompted him to think about how in recent years power had shifted from the newsroom to the back office, with financial personnel becoming the new "Masters of the Universe," while journalists had lost the confidence that comes with the sense that they were fulfilling a mission, rather than simply doing a job.

Steingart lamented that the heads of major media companies were destroying traditional business models without generating new ones. Newspapers were not having an audience or credibility problem, he noted. Rather, they were feeding the revenue of other companies, like Google (through search advertisements) and AT&T (through subscription fees for connecting to the Internet). Even worse, the availability of the Internet as a news outlet forced Steingart to become "[his] own rival." Should he immediately post his findings online for free, he sometimes asks himself, or should he hold them back for publication in print?

Steingart recommended that traditional media become more entrepreneurial and risk-taking in search of new business models, but he also urged defense of traditional revenue streams. Other industries fight for their intellectual property and prevent competitors from giving away their products for free, so why shouldn't journalists?

Allison Silver drew lessons from her experiences as journalist and editor for both print and online newspapers. People and institutions at the top, she noted, generally do not innovate. At the newspapers where she used to work, Internet-oriented work served as "a form of exile" or "an internal Siberia" for employees who were deemed incompetent or who became the victims of office politics.

The impact of the Internet on news reporting became clear to her during the run-up to the Iraq War. She noticed that as one story appeared on the front page of a major newspaper, contradictory information would surface on the Internet. Executives and reporters perceived these critics as "crazies and wannabes," which many of them were, but some were serious and were putting out damning information.

At the same time, newspapers were laying off their most expensive workers—older, experienced reporters. Experience is necessary for journalists to read between the lines and confidently challenge the establishment, she said, and this became especially clear when Seymour Hersh, a reporter for The New Yorker, consistently beat daily news outlets for stories. Hersh had the advantage of having reported on Vietnam and the revelations of CIA assassinations and torture that emerged in the 1970s, so he knew whom to ask, what to ask, and how to ask it. Decades-long relationships with sources paid off for him.

Web sites, Silver noted, enable a sense of transparency and community that strengthens trust between reporters and readers. Readers can check reporters' facts by clicking on embedded hyperlinks, and they can share information either in the comments section or by providing tips directly to the news organization. The nature of online news also leads readers to check back with the site constantly for updates to stories.

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