Yesterday I promised to post about why we shouldn’t view the decline of the newspaper as a blow to democratic accountability. Conor Friedersdorf offered what seems to be the mainstream view of the subject in the nation’s journalism schools: that one of the crucial roles of a newspaper is to put important stories in front of readers who may or may not be interested in reading them, and that we’re losing that capacity as the Internet replaces the newspaper.
This doesn’t seem quite right to me for two reasons. First, the I think it overestimates newspapers’ power to compel involvement in the political process by the otherwise apathetic. And second, I think the Internet is better at creating effective “soapboxes” than he gives it credit for.
Newspapers are fundamentally information networks, and part of the reporter’s job was to ration access to the network’s scarce and valuable bandwidth. There has always been vastly more civic information in a metropolitan area than there were column-inches, and this meant a lot of relevant information would wind up on the cutting-room floor. The reporter (and his editor) were responsible for ensuring that the most valuable information reached the readership.
As Clay Shirky has observed, traditional publishing involved a top-down “filter, then publish” model, in which some authority figure (in this case, a reporter) had to guess which information people would be interested in. This is the only way a newspaper can work, because it doesn’t have the bandwidth to publish everything. In contrast, the Internet operates on a “publish, then filter” model: everything goes up, and then we use after-the-fact tools—search engines, Twitter, blogs, Wikipedia—to find good stuff. No rationing is required. Not surprisingly, journalists are ambivalent about this because it removes them from their privileged gatekeeping position. But for readers, this is a feature, not a bug.
Now, a newspaper partisan might argue that reporters’ gatekeeper role was a good thing because, in essence, the reporter had a better understanding of what the reader needed than the reader himself did. I think this is not only paternalistic, but it also misunderstands the role of the front page in local politics. The reason putting something on the front page of the local newspaper could affect the political debate wasn’t that it mobilized otherwise-disengaged citizens. If you put a water board story on the front page, most ordinary citizens are just going to flip to the sports page. Rather, the reason getting on the front page mattered was mostly because before the Internet, there were a lot of people who were interested, but who—thanks to the limitations of the newspaper format—might not otherwise have seen this particular story.
It used to be pretty difficult for insiders to keep track of the issues they card about. Before search engines and RSS feeds, it took a lot of work to comb through newspapers looking for every story relating to a particular subject. This is why large organizations subscribed (and still do) to expensive newspaper-clipping services. The Internet has made life radically easier for the politically active. If I want to know what’s going on in a particular issue I care about—software patents or eminent domain reform, say—I can directly subscribe to RSS feeds related to those subjects. I can set up a Google News alert for my favorite topic, my favorite (or least favorite) politician, or the name of my home town. So the Internet is having two effects that are really opposite sides of a single coin: it’s making it easier for interested citizens to follow the issues they care about, and it’s making it easier for uninterested citizens to ignore the issues they don’t care about. Given that non-engaged citizens have always been little more than deadweight in the political process, I consider this a good thing.
With that said, Conor does have a good point about newspaper front pages: it’s a good thing that there was a tall soapbox that allowed newspaper editors to shine a “spotlight” on an issue that required broader public attention. But here, too, “publish, then filter” is an improvement, not a step backwards. As Clay Shirky pointed out in his discussion of the Catholic pedophilia scandal, different stories have different target audience. The audience for the Cardinal Law story wasn’t Bostonians (the readership of the Globe) but Catholics regardless of location. The Internet allowed the audience for the Globe‘s Cardinal Law stories to be much larger than its general readership.
Moreover, there are institutions with the “heft” to bring stories to the attention of large audiences. In the “publish, then filter” world, the sites with the most influence tend to be filters rather than publishers. And they frequently aren’t organized around geographical locations. Julian mentioned Daily Kos, but there are a ton of other examples: the Drudge Report, Slashdot, Digg, BoingBoing, and so forth. These sites build audiences that don’t necessarily break down along geographical lines, but rather (in this case) along ideological or professional lines. And of course the blogosphere and social news sites in the aggregate act as a news amplifier; stories that people find interesting get passed around rapidly, eventually reaching far more people than any one mainstream media outlet could have reached.
Which isn’t to say that the Internet doesn’t do local news. The reality is that a great many people still read newspapers, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the local metro daily is still one of the most prominent soapboxes in a given metropolitan area. But we’ve seen a proliferation of locally-focused blogs and news sites that help to disseminate news to civically-minded people in a metropolitan area. To choose a few DC-area blogs at random, you’ve got DCist, Greater Greater Washington, Beyond DC and Prince of Petworth. Obviously, none of these blogs individually are comparable to the Washington Post, and even in the aggregate they may not match the Post‘s readership yet. But as the Post declines, it’s not hard to imagine these sites, and others like them, picking up the slack.
Things look even better if we look at the hyper-local level. Virtually every neighborhood has a neighborhood mailing list for exchanging local community information. Here the reporter-middleman is cut out of the loop entirely: people who care about local politics communicate directly with one another. A neighborhood mailing list is going to have vastly more information than would be available in a local newspaper a generation ago. Not everyone will have the patience for that, but the ones who matter most will. And the rest will take their cues from their politically-engaged friends and neighbors.
Reporters no longer have a technologically-imposed monopoly on their readers’ attention. Readers are no longer stuck with whichever local newspaper happens to be in their home town, and so reporters have to work harder to keep the audiences that used to be theirs by default. Not surprisingly, established journalists don’t like this trend. They liked the privileged position they enjoyed in the pre-Internet age, and they built an elaborate self-justifying ideology that portrayed their privileged position as a benefit to readers. It’s a letdown for journalists to suddenly find themselves on a level playing field with hordes of amateurs. But frankly, that’s just the world works: if a bunch of amateurs can do your job as well as you can, then you should probably find a new job.
Which isn’t to say that journalism as a profession is going to go away. There are some categories of reporting that professionals can do better than amateurs; reporters will have to figure out which categories these are and how to earn a living from them. They’ll have to work hard to earn their readers’ attention. And that’s as it should be.