Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Epistemology of 21st Century Journalism, Part 1: Why Newspapers are Dying

The short answer? They haven't been writing enough articles like this.

For reasons you'll see in a moment, I agree with Andrew Sullivan that blogs are parasitic on the work of traditional journalists, particularly that of good investigative reporters. But aspects of this situation are changing: bloggers have started to win their fights for press credentials, and the prestige and access that traditional journalists used to enjoy exclusively is starting to look merely overpriced in the face of hard, unique work like FiveThirtyEight's On The Road series and just about everything original put out by Talking Points Memo (not to mention larger sites like The Huffington Post). No longer is it embarrassing to be interviewed by an internet-only publication: as often as not, bloggers are professional journalists who provide information that is utterly lacking in the mainstream, and people have started to realize it.

To make matters infinitely more interesting, some surprising names have started showing up in the bylines on some of the larger blogs: Keith Olbermann, John Kerry (who, it turns out, is awesome), Ted Kennedy, NY Governor David Patterson and a number of others all write diaries on Daily Kos; Darcy Burner and ACORN NYC executive director Bertha Lewis are now frontpagers on OpenLeft. That's a fantastic development. To be in direct communication with people in (relative) national power is something that ordinary citizens haven't had a chance to experience since the early 20th century, if ever.

What makes it so cool are moments like Friday, when Olbermann's post about Clinton's Secretary of State chances was joined on the Kos reclist by a strenuous objection to his reasoning and sources. That is actual, real discourse, and if it hasn't completely unclothed the emperor then it's at least revealing his fairly silly purple underpants.

There's only one truism worth its salt in the Western intellectual tradition, after all, and it was Socrates's fundamental point: no one really knows what they're talking about. There are experts, and there are geniuses, but if you push them hard enough then they'll come up short every single time. And yet, the more you push, the more interesting it gets.

The fact that NYT or CNN reporters are trusted merely because they're in the news is therefore a structural problem with our approach to knowledge. The internet has helped to reveal it, by offering alternatives and forcing improvement, but it's always been there. In part because of that revelation, the traditional media is starting to fail on a number of fronts.


It's not a bad thing, that they're floundering. With all due respect to the incredibly talented people who work in the mainstream – and there are many – the industry as a whole just has no hope of keeping up with the pace of analysis that the average internet user has come to expect. After reading FiveThirtyEight, OpenLeft and Pollster for a month or two, for example, watching someone on CNN talk about their "Poll of Polls", or seeing the AP hype its latest poll without the slightest deference to the surrounding context is downright embarrassing – and it's a problem that arises because there's no one to tell them to wake up and improve their methods.

To make matters worse, a columnist for the New York Times cannot possibly read and understand every one of the thousands of daily comments. And why should they? Most of them, as far as I can tell, are by crazy people who don't even try to understand the issue. By contrast, the comments on the blogs I read tend to be more manageable and of high enough quality that the solicitation of comments is are often the point of the post. A certain amount of self-selection is a good thing, even if it comes with a price.

As a professor of mine once argued, though, the fracturing of journalism could represent a return to our epistemological condition before the idea of "objectivity" was invented, when trust and knowledge was based more on the individual's personal acquaintance with a speaker than in the norms governing what they said and how they came to conclude it. But that simultaneously short-changes the blogs while over-selling traditional journalism: while the mainstream tends to rely on a small number of relatively static commentators, the internet (at least in its present uncrystallized form) is beautifully meritocratic. Though the actual situation is naturally more complicated, it's not far from the truth to say that bloggers succeed or fail entirely because of their ability while the positions of pundits in other media are determined by a much more roundabout process. (Also, objectivity is made up. But that's another story).

To put it in polemical terms, the internet is more diverse, more open to criticism, smarter, faster, soon to be more heavily populated (if it isn't already). Paradoxically, by contrast, the large media outlets are too small, too limited, too isolated, and too inflexible to partake in the dialogue about current events. Which makes them, in internet terms, too stupid. The small number of traditional news organizations simply cannot offer the depth of analysis of thousands of small blogs.

And there is something absolutely wonderful about the range of news sources today. I'll talk about this in more depth in a later post, but the ability to read five or six articles on a given topic, note their differences and come to an independent conclusion is something that only internet-based media can provide. Once exposed to that diversity, the idea of reading the NYT cover-to-cover everyday seems like just a waste of time. Why trust any one source to get everything about an important story right, anymore?


Yet this is probably a good time to start talking about how we really do need The Press, since newspapers across the country are on the brink of failure (including the vaunted New York Times, whose profits dipped 51% last quarter), posing a real threat to that beautiful diversity.

One of the reasons we need them is theoretical: without national discourse – even stupid national discourse – there's effectively no discourse. We need the stereotypical, largely stupid, sometimes corrupt, constantly maligned mainstream media to say things that we can agree or disagree with. They define the parameters of the debate, because theirs is the largest soapbox. Even if it's sometimes detrimental, they keep us talking about the same things.

But the other, deeper reason we need them is practical. While we may be able to expect a really good blog to reliably post most of the interesting stories of the day, we can't expect any single internet source to have dozens of reporters stationed all over the word. Not yet, anyway: it's an incredibly complex and expensive endeavor to handle the legal challenges and safety concerns posed by international journalism, and blogs aren't up to it yet even though they imply some exciting possibilities. Despite the growth of truly independent news sources, traditional reporters are still the people on the ground for nearly every major story.

That said, the situation facing most freelance journalists today is essentially the same as that facing bloggers. As David Simon repeatedly notes, the cost-cutting measures that newspapers have undergone over the last decade and a half have lead to a general lack of support for investigative reporting (which hits ex-pat reporters particularly hard) and a push to try and win a Pulitzer by presenting the sad but largely bullshit story of a misunderstood community-member. Well, that hurts everyone. I don't care as much if the analysis portion of ceases to exist, since, as I have argued, blogs do it better. But we need investigative journalism for any of this to work, and that's precisely what's been slipping.

So it's a great relief to see the New York Times putting out more articles like Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti. This is no puff piece. It doesn't begin with a pointless emotive anecdote. It doesn't even provide any analysis. It's just deeply important, meaningful information presented in a clear and factually oriented manner with a sense of narrative flow and of the importance of knowing how important military decisions are actually made. And that's evident from the very first line:

WASHINGTON — The United States military since 2004 has used broad, secret authority to carry out nearly a dozen previously undisclosed attacks against Al Qaeda and other militants in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, according to senior American officials.

It's a serious and prescient issue, and so they literally don't waste a single word in the opening. And while there's a ton of information in the article, enough to give the reader a picture of how the command structure works, it's only about two net-pages long. Really, it's as good an article as I've ever read. It gives me hope for the survival of newspapers, despite the overwhelming odds.

Of course, it's worth noting that I read it online.


  1. Really well done, and very deep analysis on a extremely wide-ranging topic.(and only part 1!)

    (Also, objectivity is made up. But that's another story).

    Probably the single biggest myth out there when discussing the media, and a personal pet peeve of mine. Whether you or I write the post in the future is up for grabs, but that WILL be discussed on this site! It's relationship with the media's definition of the non-existent "center" of politics goes hand in hand with this as well.

    Another interesting take
    from Atrios
    on the subject, including this pretty amazing Rupert Murdoch quote:

    "The complacency stems from having enjoyed a monopoly--and now finding they have to compete for an audience they once took for granted. The condescension that many show their readers is an even bigger problem. It takes no special genius to point out that if you are contemptuous of your customers, you are going to have a hard time getting them to buy your product. Newspapers are no exception."

    Yeah, Rupert Murdoch said that.

  2. Man, it's funny how the media analysis bug is going around this week. Between that Murdoch piece – which is awesome, by the way – and Nate Silver's A Few Notes on the Media (and of course, Andrew Sullivan and the OpenLefters who are always talking about blogging and journalism), it seems like everyone's thinking about it.

    Word about objectivity, too. We should probably both do posts: it's gonna feature prominently in the next two parts of my series, but not in a way that relates it to specific memes in the media.

  3. i'm gonna be completely honest; this is a topic we'll have to discuss in person. i was very interested to read this post (as a journalism major) as soon as i saw the headline, and your analysis was so thorough that it kinda went over my head. i mean that as a compliment, it is extremely well written!

    to throw my two cents in though, news will always exist in one form or another, as it really boils down to people receiving information. it remains to be seen exactly which medium will receive their news from, and everyone's kinda freaking out about the decline of newspapers because they're worried about how to make the most profit from this. "news" will forever evolve and change with the times and the technology, which some people refuse to understand for some reason.

  4. Kudos Nick for your most elegant posting.
    I am going to direct my comments to the
    part about FiveThirtyEight and the currency
    of the information we receive. Never was
    the need for currency more urgent than the
    weeks leading up to the election. When the
    tide began to turn toward Obama on Nate
    Silver's site, I was filled with relief and checking
    the site daily helped calm the ups and downs
    of the daily campaign trash news.
    The cable news shows kept parading useless
    national polls such as AP and creating the
    misinformation that the race was even closer.

    Even the usually straight shooter Chuck Todd
    "allowed" himself to speculate if there was still a
    way Obama could win on Election night when
    Indiana and Virginia were still up in the air.
    I think the MSNBC execs had him on a short lease
    Election Night. Clearly he knew, but the longer
    the cable shows could create suspense, they
    were going to do it. Which is NUTS! Like we
    would turn off the tv when Obama was declared
    the winner?

    I like picking the New York Times out of the leaves
    in the morning and releasing it from its blue bag.
    I like reading over the headlines and the inside
    news, finding the crossword puzzle, etc. But when
    I need news, I go to TPM & Huffington Post, because I am spoiled now. I want up to the minute
    news because its AVAILABLE! During Watergate,
    my college roommate, Toni, and I would drive into
    DC every night from our apt in Arlington to get the
    bulldog edition from the Post's headquarters to see
    what the latest Woodward and Bernstein article would reveal. So I have had the need for currency
    for a long time. The fact that it is available instantly is remarkable and makes it impossible to
    go back to the old ways.
    Newspapers will have to make their other features
    that are not dependent on time more compelling.
    Human interest stories, travel news, art reviews,
    book reviews, sports rehashing--there is much that
    they have to offer, but are the times ever changing!

    Great article, Nick!

  5. From the Murdoch internet radio address: "People are hungrier for information than ever before... I like the look and feel of newsprint as much as anyone. But our real business isn’t printing on dead trees. It’s giving our readers great journalism and great judgment."