The future of journalism panel was a frustrating affair. John Kerry, who chaired the hearings, was apparently unaware of how Web sites like Google and Yahoo aggregate news and so was ill prepared to ask informed questions about how newspapers might make more money off their content. The question of content and fair use was a primary focus -- and I'm not sure that was for the best. The decline of newspapers' profitability likely has far more to do with the loss of direct revenue sources such as classified ads -- which one can now post free on any number of Web sites. The solutions suggested by David Simon (of The Wire fame) and James Moroney of the Dallas Morning News seemed to veer between two opposites -- either the newspapers would get together as an industry and decide to charge for content, or they would move toward a nonprofit model.
Simon was particularly pessimistic about the future of journalism, while Arianna Huffington seemed to be particularly optimistic. They talked past each other -- when Simon expressed concern about the future of investigative journalism, Huffington cited her Web site's investigative fund or Josh Marshall's TPM. The only problem is Simon wasn't talking about covering Washington: He was talking about the local reporters who troll city halls and state capitols, local hospitals and police stations looking for stories, developing the kind of relationships that expose webs of influence, patronage, and corruption. "The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism," Simon said.
Of course, there's nothing about blogging, or the delivery of content online that precludes bloggers from doing the kinds of things Simon is talking about. The problem is how to get the money to support that kind of journalism, online or otherwise. Simon pointed out that even before the rise of the Internet, newspapers, as public companies, were letting good reporters go and important coverage vanish simply to meet a bottom line. Simon didn't take a side in the "Web vs. print wars"; he argued that the problem, at its core, was a "disastrous free-market logic" that put a public trust at the mercy of profit-seeking shareholders.
That, to me, is the most worrying prospect: Even if newspapers were to be profitable again, there's no indication they'd invest in the kind of journalism they're now using to convince everyone how valuable they are, and it isn't the choice of the dedicated reporters and editors who staff them. It's up to the people who own the paper, and they're worried about the bottom line.
UPDATE: I appear to have mangled the second part of Simon's quote. According to Dana Milbank, the full quote is "The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance."
-- A. Serwer
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