75° Good Afternoon
75° Good Afternoon

The newspaper industry is worth saving

Ellen Hume, a former newspaper reporter, is a fellow in civic media at the Center for Media and Communication Studies in Budapest. She was research director of MIT's Center for Future Civic Media and executive director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Why should we worry about the death of newspapers? Compared with interactive sources, reading any newspaper is pretty much a two-dimensional, impersonal, top-down, one-way and often stupefying experience. News reports are infuriatingly self-referential and incomplete. If they stir us, they don't give us any place to go.

The endless stream of revelations and problems, celebrities and disasters, seems disconnected from our personal choices and solutions to public problems. Newspaper readers can feel like "passengers in the back seat of the car, howling at the driver," as one media theorist and historian put it.

Now we, the public, can be the drivers, with enticing participatory media that are upending power relationships, helping users take action on emotions stirred by the news and creating and engaging communities of shared interest.

We get more information than we can use, including original documents and expert opinions. We can publish our news to the world through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and cell-phone apps.

These tools enable people not just to have more fun, but to contribute to political campaigns, bear witness to official misconduct, arrange meet-ups to deal with local problems, and crunch and visualize data.

If television, viewed passively inside the home, served to disengage people from community, new media are drawing us together with extraordinary results.

So why don't we wash all that ink off our hands for good? We certainly can give up the ink-and-paper format. But we are suicidal idiots if we give up the professional service that newspapers provide.

Newspaper journalism is the foundation of the watchdog news chain, which produces local investigations that often become national stories. The best journalists work on our behalf to sort out what's true and relevant, whether they or their advertisers like it or not. That's what they mean by objectivity.

Good journalism costs money. It also requires a popular culture that supports unpopular questions and answers. It asks citizens to care about what is factually true. It must be built on something other than the voyeur pornography of violence, sex and celebrity.

At their best, newspapers provide what author Alex S. Jones calls the "iron core" of news - the honest, time-consuming effort by paid professionals to hold the powerful accountable. Television and radio newscasts, Google news, Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh and those who run the world still depend to a large extent on the flow of facts and assertions vetted, organized and prioritized by newspaper journalists.

Internet advertising without subscription fees cannot finance "iron core" journalism. So newspapers, even as they adapt to the Web and cell-phone platforms, are going bankrupt, and serious journalists are losing their jobs.

Technology is not the sole culprit. Neither journalists nor the public have adequately differentiated good journalism from bad, nor defended newspapers when they have been under attack from ideologues. It has been increasingly hard for news organizations to resist offering whatever the public wants, instead of fighting for what, in their judgment, the attentive citizen needs to know.

For new business models to work, journalists need to provide news services of unique value and promote their credo as effectively as critics have attacked it. Media literacy should be part of basic education, as power and responsibility for evaluating the news moves from the elite to the street.

The smartest digital entrepreneurs understand the continued importance of good journalism. Despite our information overload, vital news and information is deliberately hidden, as newspaper and magazine exposés of torture and other issues continue to teach us. We need professionals with clout to hold propaganda creators accountable while being accountable themselves.

We can't expect the evanescent and sometimes anonymous virtual digital folks who volunteer their pieces of information, to provide the consistent, influential flow of relevant, verified news that people require in a democracy. We need a common picture of the real world we cohabit. Without professional journalists, we are tempted to travel only streets we already know, mirroring ourselves with our media choices, rather than facing unwelcome facts. That is why we need to save newspapers, or at least the journalism they can provide. They help us demand the best from the powerful, and from ourselves.


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