Where the Web has failed journalism

Mar 21, 2013

FORTUNE -- Oh, good. Another "the Internet is saving journalism" apologia, this time by Matt Yglesias, Slate's economics writer. Yglesias, reacting to the dismal findings of this year's  State of the Media report from Pew Research, declared that "American news media has never been in better shape. That’s just common sense."

As always when somebody cites "common sense," close scrutiny is demanded. In this case, the scrutiny doesn't even have to be close—the argument is inane on the face of it. Usually, this notion that the Internet is improving our news media is couched in quasi-political terms: the "elite gatekeepers" of the "old media" are simply trying to protect their turf while the Internet is giving "the people" power to choose from a whole range of news sources. (To be fair, Yglesias does this mostly by implication.)

Such arguments almost always leave out the fact that it is local and regional news—the news that most directly affects "the people"—that has been hurt the most, and there is no range of sources from which to choose. Yglesias is no different, and he heedlessly leaps into this ironic abyss right from the start, citing recent blanket coverage of Cyprus's bank bailouts as evidence that the news media is in fine shape. "You don’t need to take my analysis of the Cyprus bank bailout crisis as the last word on the matter," he humblebrags. "You can quickly and easily find coverage from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Economist."

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It's true that certain areas of public life are covered very well, maybe better than ever. For example, we might have more people writing about international affairs, celebrity culture, finance (especially Wall Street, and most especially whether particular stocks might go up or down), and technology (especially gadgets and apps, and the companies that make them). But massive layoffs and sinking revenues at local and regional newspapers have decimated coverage of city halls, schools, and statehouses—places where "the people" (meaning, taxpaying citizens) have a far bigger stake. In other words, news that appeals to the well-off (the kinds of people who read Slate and all the publications Yglesias references) is doing fine. But journalism that is aimed at the interests of the middle and working classes, and journalism done in the general public interest, is a ghost of its former self. Yglesias doesn't even mention this kind of journalism. An argument could be made that, while local and regional news is in a bad way right now, the power of the Internet will eventually make such journalism stronger than ever (though there are few signs of that happening so far). But to ignore local and regional news in these discussions seems intellectually dishonest.

It's guaranteed that the kind of local corruption and government mismanagement that was routinely revealed by working newspaper reporters (and some on TV and radio) up until about 10 years ago is now running rampant, often going totally unscrutinized, thanks to shrinking newsrooms. Further, such corruption and mismanagement is more easily allowed to happen in the first place because local and state officials know they don't have as many knowledgeable watchdogs looking over their shoulders. And even beyond the bad stuff government does, citizens are left with much less knowledge of the everyday doings of their public officials. Is your local school board devising a curriculum plan that you might think is not the best thing for your kids? You might not know, because instead of three reporters covering schools for a given newspaper, now there might be only one, or even none. And the people doing it often have much less experience than they once did.

Perhaps worst of all for an economics writer, Yglesias utterly mischaraterizes the economics of journalism. He compares journalism to agriculture: "Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read."  Thanks to the relatively frictionless production of news on the Web, he says, journalists are more productive, and so fewer of them are needed. But newsgathering isn't farming. Covering a statehouse isn't made any easier by the fact that the resulting news stories can be published quickly and easily online. Just as many reporter-hours are needed to achieve a given level of production as were needed before the Web (that is, if "production" is measured by the amount of journalistic scrutiny given to the statehouse, which is what's really important.)

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Further, Yglesias's whole argument rests on the erroneous presumption that news is news and there's no differentiation to the news product other than the quality of the writing, whether it emanates from the City of London or from the city hall. "Just ask yourself," he commands. "Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago?" Well, in total, there's more, obviously, and that's great. But here in Oakland, Calif., just as in communities across the land, there's a lot less local and state news than there was 13 years ago, and what news there is isn't nearly as well-reported.

The one very brief nod Yglesias gives to local and regional news is in this single sentence: "A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival." This sentence was contained in a passage where he describes how competition works online, where there's "lots of competition and lots of stuff to read." And he's right, as long as you care more about the banks in Cyprus than you do about crime in your neighborhood.

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