Lots of talk in Blogland of late about this Wall Street Journal column, much of it stupid (the talk, that is), almost all of it predictable. So predictable, in fact, that I wish journalists who throw pitches like this — it’s about the impending death of ink-on-paper news — would learn a few sinkers and sliders and stop sending big fat slow ones over the plate. The writer, Paul Mulshine, takes a few unnecessary cheap shots at bloggers, which elicits the usual response: Wah wah wah someone said something mean about Glenn Reynolds how arrogant how MSM I can’t wait until they’re all dead wah wah wah, followed a few hours later by welcome Instapundit readers…
These side squabbles, which all seem to boil down to “he didn’t write it the way I would have, so I’m going to get on my new-media blog and whine about it,” distract from Mulshine’s message, which comes low in the piece, and isn’t talked about enough, i.e., who is going to do the boring work newspapers do when they’re gone?
…The writer in question (who covers mundane government meetings) is performing a valuable task for the reader — one that no sane man would perform for free. He is assembling what in the business world is termed the “executive summary.” Anyone can duplicate a long and tedious report. And anyone can highlight one passage from that report and either praise or denounce it. But it takes both talent and willpower to analyze the report in its entirety and put it in a context comprehensible to the casual reader.
This highlights the real flaw in the thinking of those who herald the era of citizen journalism. They assume newspapers are going out of business because we aren’t doing what we in fact do amazingly well, which is to quickly analyze and report on complex public issues. The real reason they’re under pressure is much more mundane. The Internet can carry ads more cheaply, particularly help-wanted and automotive ads.
So if you want a car or a job, go to the Internet. But don’t expect that Web site to hire somebody to sit through town-council meetings and explain to you why your taxes will be going up. Soon, newspapers won’t be able to do it either.
We touched on this last week in the comments, when our BFF Deb put it in much more pungent language:
there is something truly terrifying about these people who seem to think journalism is such a simple-minded enterprise that any fool with a notebook can do it. and how do i know this blogger in bumfaulk isn’t sleeping with the school superintendent, a disgruntled former employee with a penchant for firearms, a garden-variety whack job, a parent with a beef against the principal, or… and what will these folks do when the board decides to convene an illegal closed session? do they have a lawyer they can call? go right ahead, round up all these reporter wannabes. but when they don’t make it to the next board meeting because the streets were icy, or left early because the whole damn thing was just TAKING too long, don’t come bitching to me.
The other day Lawrence Lessig was on “Fresh Air,” talking about digital copyright ideas and related topics, and Terry Gross asked him about the future of newspapers. He skipped right over the newspapers part — he gets all his news from Google News, he said — and said that what worries him far more is the future of investigative reporting. This is a common lamentation among the intelligentsia: screw Dear Abby, what about investigative reporting? It drives me right up the wall, because it tells me the intelligentsia knows little about reporting. Maybe HBO could put “All the President’s Men” back into the rotation, so we could all refresh our memories of Watergate and take a lesson about the most famous journalistic investigation in modern history:
It started as a routine story on the police beat.
We forget that Bob Woodward wasn’t Bob Woodward back then. He was just some guy in the metro desk bullpen who had to work Saturdays. He got a tip and caught a break. The rest was just following leads, shoe-leather reporting.
Many larger newspapers maintain so-called I-teams, but the fact is, the best investigative reporting is like that — bottom-up. (If you know your local reporting staff, you’ll frequently find the beat reporter’s byline, along with one of the I-teamers, on big projects. The former knows the territory, and the latter knows how to work databases and other specialized reporting tools.) So when Lessig says he worries about who will support investigative work, I have to say I don’t. Some Gates-type foundation will arise to fund worthy projects, ones that will make all concerned feel virtuous at the annual banquet. There will be investigations on crime rates and welfare-to-work programs and the fate of the Pacific salmon. There won’t be too many projects about public-servant thieves like Kwame Kilpatrick, because those come from beat reporters keeping their eyes and ears open as they do the scutwork of the job — going to meetings so boring they peel paint from the walls, checking police blotters and court dockets, schmoozing secretaries and clerks.
That’s what will be lost when newspapers go away. Get to work, citizen journalists.
Not much bloggage today. The news seems to be taking the week off, too. Well, there’s this, an NYT story about the difficulty of ending your marriage in a collapsed real estate market. I don’t know why the strawberry blonde in the second photo made me think of “Lyin’ Eyes,” the old Eagles song. Just something about her. I bet she opened lots of doors with just a smile, back in the day. And the fact she says money from their multiple homes would be her only income. Time to get a job, hon.
More coffee for me.
Oh, wait! We have a holiday photo. It’s Beb, all tired out from reading his Fun Calendar, colonized by cats:
Now more coffee for me.
MichaelG said on December 30, 2008 at 10:28 am
There’s one guy out there who seems to be doing the digging and the original reporting that papers have always done and that’s Josh Marshall. As successful as his growing TPM empire seems to be he’s only one guy. It would take thousands of him to replace all the local papers and I can guess that’s not going to happen. Best way I can figure for news people to make money on the net is to have a couple of porn sites on the side.
brian stouder said on December 30, 2008 at 10:40 am
Or, maybe we can go to enforced citizenship (if we’re going to rely on “citizen journalism”).
Think of it – you get a notice in the mail from the county courthouse, and you’re HOPING it’s jury duty…but no! – It’s journalism duty!! You have to spend 6 weeks going to board meetings (or face contempt charges) and…arrrrgggghhhh – it’s the board of zoning appeals!!
(Only the lucky ones get school board duty or city council)
Danny said on December 30, 2008 at 11:33 am
“colonized by cats”
Adrianne said on December 30, 2008 at 12:38 pm
Amen, sister. Let’s hear it for journalistic masochists everywhere who sit through planning board meetings, arraignments, school board conferences, etc., and report it all for you so you don’t have to go there.
And I’m with you on the future of investigative journalism – the best watchdog stories almost inevitably grow out of a plugged-in beat reporter, who manages to find the time to do them because they’re important and interesting.
Scout said on December 30, 2008 at 1:11 pm
Danny, I was also struck by the hilarity of “colonized by cats!” Especially since, at any given moment at my house I am likely to have two trying to muscle each other off my lap, one at my feet waiting for them both to get irritated and leave, two laying on the back of the sofa trying to spoon my head and one out in the kitchen licking the butter because he knows I can’t get up.
Sue said on December 30, 2008 at 2:27 pm
There is not enough emphasis on what should be a basic understanding of any citizen: the responsibility to keep yourself informed. If there were, the second-most-common phrase heard at any counter in any municipality would not be “But no one told me!”. One of the things that keeps many small-town papers in print today is the fees they receive for printing minutes, agendas, notices, etc., publishing of which is required by statute in most states, I think. These are printed and available for a reason, and not just to waste taxpayers’ money. Probably this is what reporters used to check first to look for potentially “interesting” issues.
By the time my municipality ran into controversy a few years back when a certain big-box store showed interest in locating here, our local paper was not much more than a shopper (it actually is a shopper now). One of the (many) accusations made by the citizens’ group that formed against the process was that the City knew about the store, and kept it a secret. They used this accusation to imply corruption and bribe-taking by City employees and elected officials. The group received plenty of coverage at first, by the local, dying paper and by the metro paper and tv stations. Because of the implied accusations, the City Administrator addressed the “keeping secrets” accusation at a Council meeting by providing a timeline which took the process back to about two weeks after the initial contact, when the first article appeared in the paper. Not surprisingly from a strategic standpoint, in his presentation he did not emphasize too much the statutorily-required published minutes, agendas, notices etc., but relied on powerpoint presentations of published articles, the kind written by those reporters who sit in on the grindingly-boring governmental meetings. There were several of the articles. From the standpoint of protecting the reputations of several elected and employed people at City Hall, it didn’t do much good, since the whisper campaign damage had been done and by that time the paper wasn’t strong enough or interested enough to pursue that aspect. If something happened today, we couldn’t search library archives to prove a point, because no one is covering anything. The citizens’ group did an awful lot of damage before they eventually destroyed themselves. I hate to think what would have happened if the only source of information on the controversy was a blogger from that group, or a blogger from that group and a blogger from City Hall.
And I had trouble typing this because Motley is in my lap, giving me the “gentle paw” routine in an attempt to get some pets.
jcburns said on December 30, 2008 at 2:29 pm
I keep thinking it’d be great to sign on to some sort of organization that has a vast pool of (vetted, evaluated) freelancers that it pays marginally to attend these meetings and edit, funnel, and factcheck (sometimes by assigning two of these folks to the same meeting, compare and contrast)…completely flexible schedules, you’d let the mothership know when you wanted to cover council meetings…two nights a week, say. Great way to summon up a little retirement income…better than becoming a Walmart greeter, anyway. I kinda enjoyed those small-town Vermont selectmens’ meetings circa 1975…I could end my so-called working life the way I began.
Danny said on December 30, 2008 at 2:32 pm
Yeah, although my allergies are really bad now, at one point in my early twenties they were not so bad and we had two twenty-some pound toms who were very “colonial.”
Scout, I remember you saying you had a business digitizing and restoring old, hardcopy family photos. I have a techie question for you: What is the recommended scanning resolution and what are the best photographic software packages?
paddyo' said on December 30, 2008 at 3:14 pm
You nailed it, Nance — and I’ll also add that I think it was that Lessig interview in which Mr. Skip-Over-The-Newspapers-Part employed an entirely irksome, kick-in-the-radio usage of “architecture” as a frigging VERB. If it he said it once, he said it half a dozen times. I practically screamed at Terry Gross to architecture a club of some kind and 2-by-4 him in the head. Man.
Anyway, I like JC’s idea, if only because I’m pessimistic that the successors to newspapers will be able to employ enough actual journalists to cover ANYthing other than celebrity pap-crap and Wacky Newz and all the rest of what depressingly too many newspapers are using to fill in the blank spaces where staff bylines used to be.
And hell, as a recent (1 year ago last week) ex-newspaper reporter, I’d consider the occasional planning commission meeting gig. It’s where I cut my teeth, too, JC. Washoe County (NV) government beat reporter four days a week, 1975 (the fifth day was Sunday night wire editor, a less-than-skeletal staff of 3 to put out the next morning’s paper — me, the cops guy and the news editor).
God, can you believe it? I mean, hey, we’re ONLY talking here about calling semi-retired ink-stained wretches back from the recliner to perform the most basic and essential role in the news tool box because the morons and pikers now running so many papers can’t sweat a little and figure a workable path to Newspapers 2.0 or whatever we want to call Life After, Or In Addition To, Daily Pulp Non-Fiction.
brian stouder said on December 30, 2008 at 3:38 pm
“Lots of talk in Blogland of late” now has a double meaning, if we consider mind-boggling Illinois to be Blagoland.
And at lunchtime, the breathless teevee journalists were exchanging “I don’t know”s back and forth about whether the Senate can refuse the burning bag of bat shit that Blago placed on their porch.
It took me approximately 3 minutes to retrieve my pocket-sized US Constitution (a freebie from Hillsdale College, baby!) and find – in Section 5 of Article One – the UNambiguous answer (“Each House shall be the Judge of Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority shall constitute a Quorum to do Business;” etc)
So – Harry Ried (et al) absolutely have the power to dispense with Blago’s appointment – whether or not they really USE it (My bet is – they absolutely WILL use the power)
The ink-stained wretches (especially in Chicago) will be all over this, and then the blow-dried teevee folks will parrot what they read, and the bloggers will criticize the teevee crowd.
jeff borden said on December 30, 2008 at 3:51 pm
Yeeesh. Roland Burris as a senator? You could do worse –in fact, many states such as Oklahome do– but this guy is really a non-player in Illinois politics these days, the proverbial legend in his own mind. He did break barriers as the first black elected to statewide office, but mostly he’s been on the losing side of elections. BTW, he’s so egomaniacal he named his son Roland Jr. and his poor daughter Rolanda.
Lex said on December 30, 2008 at 4:23 pm
Interesting subject. I took the company buyout and Friday’s my last day, so I’ll be able to ponder the impending demise of newspapers exclusively from the reader/citizen’s viewpoint. I’m not sure I’m going to like the view.
Jim said on December 30, 2008 at 4:35 pm
As someone who used to cover a LOT of local government (city council, cops, courts, aviation board, library board !!), I’ve also thought about who will do that once newspapers go the way of passenger railroads, network radio and men’s hats.
So why do (or did) people buy newspapers? For the local government coverage? The crime news? High school sports? The comics? The classifieds? The answer is all of the above. For a mere quarter (.35, then .50) a day, you got all that plus the the advertisements from local stores.
Advertisers do what they have always done: Purchase eyeballs.
I always thought that “regular” newspapers thrived in comparison to free shoppers because customers paid for the product, even if the price was small. Free shoppers pile up in the mailbox or the driveway; people take in the paper because they bought it.
Obviously, I don’t have the answers for all this — if I did I’d be doing it! But I’d like to think that people still are interested in what’s going on in their own community as well as the world around them.
brian stouder said on December 30, 2008 at 4:57 pm
Newspapers are indeed an ‘all of the above’ deal; I think the main attraction always was – if you read them, then you could be “in” on the conversations all around town (at work, at school events, at the ball diamond, etc); and the internet fills that need for ‘conversation fodder’
Still – local newspapers offer news about HERE that one really oughta know, as for example this story from the Property Mistress’s old paper about a half-built, leaning hotel (where I-69 and US-24 come together)
Dave Fuller has been in the construction business 29 years – the last nine as Allen County’s building commissioner. So when he says he’s “never seen anything this bad in terms of the quality of workmanship,” you know it’s serious. So serious, in fact, that his department in May shut down work on an 80-room hotel at West Jefferson Boulevard and Interstate 69, leaving the Fort Wayne owners with the multimillion-dollar choice of correcting a staggering series of contractor blunders or tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch.
MichaelG said on December 30, 2008 at 5:25 pm
A couple of weeks ago the SF Chron went from $0.47 to $0.75 for a daily paper.
Legal notices are a big income source for many papers. We (the State of CA) publish ads in a local paper and in a trade paper for each contract that we put out to bid in addition to putting it on our web site.
Brian, that’s what inspectors are supposed to be for. Each one of my jobs has an inspector and I work very closely with him or her to make sure we don’t get into any situations like your hotel wound up in. Sounds like the inspectors in Ft. Wayne were a tad slow but that they finally got there.
Kirk said on December 30, 2008 at 5:33 pm
It may take not having a newspaper for a while for people to realize how much they miss having trained pros looking out for them and sniffing out crooks, thieves and liars.
joodyb said on December 30, 2008 at 5:54 pm
i’m glad you mentioned fact-checking, jcb. some of us still make our living, and legitimately so, editing those blasted blotters and city council reports. while the mode-o-day is mundane, the errors, human and moral, are rampant and often entertaining.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on December 30, 2008 at 7:51 pm
Welcome Instapundit readers!
(that is, if any of you are stopping by on your own)
Deborah said on December 30, 2008 at 8:23 pm
I love it when you guys talk about newspapers, it’s an esoteric world I know nothing about, but it’s so interesting.
My hideous Gov Blago has done it again. Finding out while in New Mexico that he has embarrassed us IL residents again is really too much. My friends here in NM are politely inquisitive as to how we could have voted for this guy. I honestly don’t remember doing it but I know I did, sad but true. Now my congressman, Danny Davis has come out supporting Blago’s Senate appointment. Double embarrassing.
alex said on December 30, 2008 at 9:30 pm
Don’t feel bad, Deborah. I voted for Blago too, much the same way my new fellow citizens here in Hoosierland reflexively vote Republican when in doubt.
But I’m not beating myself up for it. He seemed benign enough. He’d had an otherwise unremarkable career in Congress before running for governor. Probably sold the seat to the highest bidder.
George Ryan was getting ready to do hard time and Judy Baar Topinka looked like someone who ought to, so really, we made the best choice under the circumstances.
caliban said on December 31, 2008 at 12:09 am
Couple things are pissing me of. Wh0 the best trilogy O film
caliban said on December 31, 2008 at 12:36 am
Couple things are pissing me of. Not really. There’s the the most perfcct. Steed and Mrs. Peel. Nodody ever matcsached Mrs Peel.
You can still exhidit your less than ubtelligencee and insist on experience like Tremt Lott and Ted Stevens,Intelligensce amd academic knowledge of the Constitution is a nad tjing. You kust had scum that wanted to trash the Constitution, you morons, and you almost let ligelong traitors like Cheney slip away. That piece of shit is a rat and needs to be locked down in Guantanamo. He’s the terrist.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on December 31, 2008 at 9:50 am
Don’t you think Condoleeza Rice has a certain Mrs. Peel vibe to her? I can see Dick Cheney in a re-make of “The Prisoner” as a Number Two.
baldheadeddork said on December 31, 2008 at 10:35 am
As irritating as it is for newspaper people to listen or read to bloggers gloss over the role of basic reporting, it is just as infuriating for news lovers like myself to read self-serving garbage like this.
Nancy, I loves ya, but when you were writing about HBO putting “All the Presidents Men” back in rotation, did it occur to you for one second that maybe readers would pay more attention to newspapers if we didn’t have to watch a 30 year-old movie for an example of that kind of reporting?
You worry about having to wonder if a blogger reporting on a school board meeting is screwing the superintendent? What do you think happened when I read the financial pages of any newspaper in America this year? Or the way every paper with a DC bureau, with the sole exception of KR, did damn little more than regurgitate the administration line for the last eight years. Hell, let’s talk about all the hard-hitting, Reporting 101 that the Freep and the News on the disastrous management of GM and Chrysler. They rightly went after Kilpatrick, but they were overwhelmingly silent on how Wagoner ran GM to the brink of failure. Who did more damage to Michigan this year? Who got the most critical coverage in the local news?
And if school board and city council meetings are so important, then why do even small papers give them so little coverage beyond a Cliff’s Notes of the minutes? It’s not a symptom of these times, either. Molly Ivins included in her first book a piece she wrote almost 40 years ago bemoaning the antiseptic coverage of local government. (I’m paraphrasing) “A meeting awash in double-dealing, back-stabbing and horse-trading will be reported as ‘The council took no action on Thursday.’ ” Sound familiar?
The best print reporting I’ve seen this year have been post-mortems. The WSJ had a terrific long-piece this last weekend on the collapse of Lehman. The WaPo is doing amazing work in a three-part series this week on the failure of AIG. Great stuff, and the writers deserve whatever awards come their way.
But earlier this year when I needed to learn exactly what was subprime, or a CDS, I had to go to financial blogs like Big Picture, Calculated Risk and Naked Capitalism. The print media was too busy reporting the spin instead of doing the shoe leather work.
If you ask me, that’s why newspapers are failing among people who are serious about the news. You need a thirty year-old movie to remind us of how important good reporting is. I need to be informed about what is going on before everyone is picking through the rubble. If newspapers can’t or won’t do it, don’t bitch at me for finding someone who can.
paddyo' said on December 31, 2008 at 12:26 pm
Whoa, there, BHD, nobody’s bitching at you for “finding someone who can.” We’re bemoaning the same damned fall-off in coverage as you are. And I’ll always love Molly Ivins, but not EVERY newspaper EVERYwhere had merely antiseptic coverage of local government 40, 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. I’d have stacked up how we covered government at my first paper back in the mid-’70s into the ’80s against any other small-to-middling-sized paper, and most of the big ones, too. But today? Not so much. At all. And that, like everything else, is due as much as anything (including the dumbing down and McPaperizing and celeb-sessing of news) to the cuts, the cuts and more and more cuts, especially the last couple of years but really for a decade now.
In any event — missed stories? Plenty. Out to lunch, asleep at the switch, and the rest of the cliches? Sure, probably, though again, not across-the-board and not in every way. But enough to be cringe-worthy, for sure.
But look: In the end, we’re simply saying that, warts and all, a world with fewer newspapers and the trained reporters and editors who work for them is going to be far, far worse off than it is now.
And the reason “All the President’s Men” is such an enduring example of How It Ought To Be Done is, well, because that’s how it still works, when it works. Regular reporters, not investigative stars, beating the bushes (no pun intended there) for daily details, insights, etc.
Of all the scenes in that still-durable movie (typewriters and all), the one that sums it up best for me is when Woodward/Redford makes a round of calls, tracking down one of many leads, and at the end of the scene, there’s a shot of his notepad — a graffiti-esque collage of scribbles, arrows, circles, underlines, numbers, names, question marks, etc. It’s a view inside the head of a thinking, puzzling, dogged reporter just doing his daily job.
THAT’s the thing we are standing up for (or were, anyway, as this comment thread is already settling in the dust of New Year’s Eve) . . .
beb said on December 31, 2008 at 9:33 pm
Jtmmo askes “Don’t you think Condoleeza Rice has a certain Mrs. Peel vibe to her? ”
Maybe a Stepford Wives thing, but Mrs. Peel? no way. The helmet hair puts me off.
As for the newspaper stuff, I don’t have an answer. I just see them in a death-spiral, where every change they make only makes the newspaper less appealing. Most days the Freep is so thin that its hard to tell the difference between a newspaper and the plastic sacked advertising flyers thrown on our porch. Sure newsprint costs money but a newspaper ought to be a substantial thing. The daily cartoons shouldn’t be so small that older people with reduced vision (moi) shouldn’t have to squint so read the captions. The freep is dying the death of a thousand cuts (hey, a pun) and it’s all self inflicted.