Newspaper navel-gazers are having a field day writing about the death of the news industry, as newspaper circulation numbers are stable or falling, and as Internet Web sites, blogs (Web logs, or news diaries produced online), talk radio and cable TV are becoming the main news sources for many people.
No doubt, we are witnessing a Wild West world of journalism, a far cry from the days when Americans read the same newspapers and chose between one of three liberal talking heads on the 6:30 news.
You have an opinion these days? No need to depend solely on the gatekeeper on the op-ed page to give you access. You have a breaking news story to report? No need to cajole a reporter or news director to go after it. You can opine yourself. You can cover the story yourself and post it immediately.
This is the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation for the media, where every man can become his own pope, or in this case his own publisher. There is virtually no cost of entry into the Internet news world, although it’s not easy to garner enough readers to have an influence on the debate.
This is a wonderful development for everyone who likes to read or who has something to say, and it is not necessarily a threat to newspapers, which can thrive in this competitive new world. Unfortunately, many members of the mainstream media (MSM, in blogger-ese), feel threatened by the competition. Instead of taking lessons from the competition (i.e., be lively and opinionated, eschew political correctness, feature tough investigative journalism, focus on diversity of thought rather than diversity of ethnicity, focus on local news), they are spending their time carping at the new media or making fun of their customers ("people don’t read any more.")
Go to any journalists’ Web site (Poynter.org, EditorandPublisher.com, CJR.org) and you’ll read such things. Without even knowing what was in the latest issue, I turned to the Columbia Journalism Review, and, sure enough, the cover story was a perfect example of such navel-gazing.
In the story, called "A Way Out?", CJR looked at the decline of newspapers and placed part of the blame on public ownership. The article was pretty good. And there’s a point there. The Orange County Register is part of privately owned Freedom Communications, and such ownership has led to a more distinctive opinion page than readers typically find in most publicly owned newspapers, where bland left-of-centerism rules.
Nevertheless, I wish these MSMers would stop trying to figure out what’s wrong and start rolling up their sleeves and practicing good, old-fashioned, fair-minded journalism that focused on events in their local communities, that broke hot stories, that gave heartburn to government officials on an equal-opportunity basis. It’s the "can’t see the forest for the trees" problem.
As I wrote recently on the Register’s Orange Punch blog, "I like the brave new media world. I got into the newspaper business because I was frustrated by what I read in the very liberal newspaper in the city where I lived at the time … . As a conservative/libertarian, it was rare to ever find my views expressed in the MSM."
A certain arrogance and failure to incorporate a variety of outlooks provided a market for news and opinion, and when the Internet came onto the scene, news providers had a field day. A similar thing happened with talk radio and cable news, as alternative stations provided outlets for those who believed that their ideas were being ignored by the blowhards on network TV.
These days, regardless of your views or fixations, you have choices. You want conservative news, liberal news, libertarian news, paleo-conservative news, etc.? It’s all there. You want a Web site devoted to Madagascar hissing roaches? I found 711 hits on my Internet search.
At first, the MSM arrogantly dismissed the newcomers, arguing that the result of this wild media world will be a miasma of untrustworthy news sources. Again, I quote myself on the blog: "It’s as easy to tell the difference between a trustworthy [and untrustworthy] blog or Internet news site as it is to tell the difference between the New York Times and the Weekly World News. Good sites earn respect. Bad ones go by the wayside. Blogs and Internet sites depend heavily on newspaper reportage, but they also break news on their own and add significant commentary."
For years everyone (whether admitting it or not) has followed the Drudge Report, which has broken some significant stories (i.e., Monica Lewinsky) and links to bizarre news events worldwide. Now we have the Smoking Gun, which did a bit of old shoe-leather reporting this month and found that author James Frey, whose "memoir" has sold more than a million copies thanks to the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, appears to be a fraud. There is no evidence of his law-breaking exploits detailed in A Million Little Pieces.
Even locally, the news is reported instantly. Earlier this week, I was reading the OCBlog, which linked to my blog post of 9:55 a.m. Jan. 16 that confirmed Assemblyman Van Tran’s entry into the 34th District Senate race. OCBlog, which breaks quite a few local political news stories each week, also linked to the FlashReport, which reported that Jim Righeimer might run for the Assembly seat Tran will vacate.
The same day, the Register’s Web site posted a story about the Tran candidacy. That’s just for the Internet. The short Internet stories don’t detract from newspaper coverage, but serve as teasers for it.
I had to interrupt my writing of this column to post breaking news on our blog about the Yorba Linda referendum on a downtown development plan. The signature-gatherers appeared to get plenty of signatures, but you’ve got to go to Orange Punch to read more about it, lest I lose my train of thought.
So, readers get a lot more than they used to get. They get a competitive atmosphere with constant news-breaking. The newspapers still provide most of the legwork and the necessary in-depth coverage of events. Opinion pages still provide in-depth insights, but the blogs offer running news and commentary with an entertaining informality. Stories are reported, updated and corrected as the day goes on.
We’re experiencing new glory days for the news business, similar to the old days when competing newspapers were hawked on street corners, except that much of what publishers are hawking must now be read on a computer screen.
Similar competition is infusing the broadcast industry, with the growth of satellite TV and even satellite radio. Soon enough the sky will be the limit in terms of channel choices, with an exponential growth in news competition on the airwaves.
There’s room for everything: a booming newspaper business providing the in-depth and local reporting, a lively blogosphere, network TV news, cable and satellite programs, talk radio and magazines. It’s not the medium but what’s in the medium.
The key is content. Whoever offers stories the public wants to read or watch will flourish. Whoever doesn’t will fade away. Competition always forces the old guard to change, but in the end it is good for everyone. The only thing that isn’t good is the whining and carping from those who refuse to change.