Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy's health, not a symptom of its death

Two years ago Taylor and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR’s faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for download (back story on my next post). It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it.

Here is a link to the full version of Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn’t Get the Internet.

And here’s one of my favourite passages:

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy, not a symptom of its death

A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”

Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?

This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted. As we argued earlier, the internet offers its own democratic way of filtering content, allowing what people think is important, relevant and interesting to be aggregated and heard. It may be messy and far from perfect, but then, so is democracy.

Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes. When is the last time you had an opinion piece or letter published in a newspaper? There are many more voices in America that deserve to be heard aside from Ivy League educated editors and journalists.

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

Far from a prerequisite, traditional media is to democracy what commercial banks are to capitalism. Are banks necessary for capitalism? No. Have they sped up its growth and made it more effective? Definitely. But could some better model emerge that performs their functions more effectively? Absolutely. Much like claiming “you’ll never get by without me” rarely reignites a relationship, fear mongering and threatening your customers won’t bring readers back. This approach merely demonstrates how scared old media has become of its readers, their free speech, and the type of democracy they want to build.

30 thoughts on “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy's health, not a symptom of its death

  1. Stephane Dubord

    Simply put: Democracy thrives with participation. The old media isn't participatory, but the new media is based on that very premise. So which one do you think is more important to democracy, if only one model is to survive?Seems clear to me!

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  3. Tish Grier

    Thanks for this wonderful post! The whole moaning and wailing that's been going on among the journalism community about democracy dying with newspapers has been bugging me for some time, and I couldn't put my finger on just why. You've summed it up quite beautifully.

  4. Kim FEraday

    I half agree with what you're saying. You don't address a critical component of traditional media at its best — providing quality content that can serve a the content for a broader discussion. Even if there's quality out there it's not easy to find.

  5. CharlesGYF

    “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy, not a symptom of its death”I'm sure a lot of dictators would agree with you. :)

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  7. Lucy

    But the form doesn't have to be print newspapers to do that. In fact the internet provides more methods for accessing more of the quality as the aggregation method is agnostic. Anyone can present a collection of news items from any original source.

  8. Denise

    brilliant! thank you for this. i mostly hated (aside from the odd moment of adrenalin) the 10 years i spent in mainstream journalism precisely because of the obligation to uphold the fiction that obediently perpetuating the value systems of our white male editors was critical to society and democracy. and that journalists who did not duplicate what they held to be “news” were considered marginal. the internet was the true vector of free speech for me in my writing trajectory – so i'm happy you've pointed this out amidst all the entitled and angry huffing and puffing of these status quo denizens who are about to go under, en masse, Ivy League education or not.

  9. Wendy Tan White

    I tend to agree with two points in the blog; it can only be better for a broader community to be involved interactively in the issues that really matter to all of us and that new media allows for a more diverse range of views and knowledge to be debated in depth.I still believe in market forces and ‘quality will out’ people still look for well written content, healthy debate and expertise, arguably it’s easier for people to ‘vote with their feet’ on the internet and new business models will follow. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with new media businesses companies like citizen journalist site and peer to peer lending site Or a twist on David's comparison, is to democracy what is to capitalism, the new order.

  10. Marine

    Very right. About : “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.” : as if democracy had waited newspapers to start or even flourish in the world… really. It's about exchanging ideas (agora, forum, age of enlightenment and first encylopedias, newspapers – as a means to make ideas circulate) not about printing news. + Surely journalists and journalism will not end with newspapers. Still I am uneasy at how they seem to believe that they have been around since forever.

  11. david_a_eaves

    Hi Werner, thank you for commenting… I don't think the first link has much to say that is interesting. The number of Canadians who pick “a” newspaper at least once a week? Almost certainly the majority of which are the free Metros… These are not stats to seek security in.The second piece is uninteresting. The 7.3% growth rate in people who look at the newspaper “once a week” includes online growth! Once you break down the numbers the newspaper experienced an actual growth (again in the number of people who looked at the newspaper at least once(!) a week) of 2.86%. This from a city that has experienced one of the fastest growth rates in the country. Moreover, just because someone looked at your newspaper once a week, doesn't mean they paid for the privilege. Indeed, newspapers have been known to give away copies during ratings periods to “boost” their numbers.What is still more instructive then asking “did you look at the newspaper at least once this week” is to examine subscription rates. Here the numbers are much more bleak for the Herald. According to the Herald's own marketing materials they had a subscription base of 126,052 in 2006, today, according to wikipedia, they have a subscription base of 115,612. That's a decline of 9%. It's also lower than their 2004 numbers of 119,476. Not exactly numbers that are going to save the industry. Even Calgary, it is a business in decline.

  12. david_a_eaves

    Wendy, I completely agree. I think there will still be people earning their keep as journalists for a good long time to come. They just probably won't be doing it for print newspapers. And, I think there will always be a market for those who write quality material (I for example, don't make money from blogging, but I do from pubic speaking which this blogs very much supports). More importantly, congratulations on being an entrepreneur not becoming a priest (like Taylor and I did for a little bit with the Missing the Link piece).

  13. Scott

    Look, there is no magic formula that describes how news is going to be distributed; People just do the best they can with the tools they have. There are benefits and drawbacks to each model, but each of them is fundmentally flawed.Up to now, newspapers/TV/ wire services were the best we could manage. That's changing, and that's good.But it's not perfect.When the last newspaper folds, it's going to take a class of information gathering with it. The new models simply will not support news gathering of the scope that the old ones did. Look for a lot more noise and nonsense in your daily news feed without those “authoritarian” and un-democratic gatekeepers on the job.

  14. Karen

    So….which of you brilliant Gen Y bloggers is going to sit at local park board meetings to find out how they are spending your tax money? Just wondering.I don't care whether newspapers live or die. It's just a medium. (Yes, the singular of “media.”) It may well be it's an outdated medium. It's certainly a wasteful, expensive and environmentally harmful medium.However, when newspapers die (so what? good riddance) the services that newspapers have traditionally supplied – such as serving as watchdogs for even the smallest municipalities, taxing bodies and so on – remain necessary to a functioning democracy. What happens when governments make decisions with no one watching? And it's tedious, people. Maybe some of you are experienced with this. Sitting through three-hour meeting of county commissioners, poring through stacks of facts and figures, following up to ask questions, finding alternate points of view – this is time consuming and not a whole lot of fun. When there are no reporters at these meetings, who will do this? Do you think it is no longer necessary? Will citizen journalists spend hours – unpaid – going line by line over the police board's budget?It's not all about national politics. Yeah, that's exactly. It's sexy. But only a tiny percentage of reporters cover national politics. Only a small percentage work in major cities. The majority are in small cities and tiny towns across the country. When the newspaper dies in these small cities and towns, will bloggers attend all the board meetings? Investigate the documents? Will unpaid citizen journalists do it? Maybe. Maybe this will be the case. I don't see anyone addressing this issue.And no, this stuff doesn't have to be published *on paper*. It isn't the publication process CJR was talking about. It isn't the medium. It's the reporting process, the mission and function of journalism. That must change also, I agree. Still, don't you want someone watching your police board? Your school board? Your park commission? I do.

  15. david_a_eaves

    Karen – I think we are in complete agreement. I also believe that the outcomes the service of journalism is supposed to create – accountability and transparency – are valuable. Consequently, I think we'll ultimately find a solution to the challenge. It may not involve having someone in a parks board meeting reporting on the events, but something will emerge. Our point here is that we just aren't sure it will be the newspaper – nor, for democracy's sake, does it have to be.

  16. david_a_eaves

    “new models will not support news gathering of the scope that the old ones did” Scott – jsut cause you haven't imagined it, doesn't mean it won't come to exist. and “look for a ot more noise and nonsense in your daily news feed without those “authoritarian” and un-democratic gatekeepers on the job.”I've found that humans are pretty good at cutting out the noise. I don't buy “US” magazine or subscribe to news feeds that are junk… These feels like two pretty linear quotes about a chaotic environment.

  17. Scott

    What sounds linear to me is assuming that something new is going to be 100 percent better.Take TV news versus print, for example. TV is more immediate than print, it's more engaging and it's easier to digest — those are all good things. But it tends to be ankle deep, on balance, and more emotional. That's not a slap on broadcast, just recognizing inherent flaws.We know professional journalism has had plenty of flaws, but news without news professionals will put the onus on readers to discern what is actual information and what isn't. That's good thing, and I'm sure people are up to it, but don't deny that it has its drawbacks. If want some concrete examples, go pick up Farhad Manjoo's “True Enough.”Citizen journalism sounds great, but it has flaws. Don't ignore them now, when its early. Figure out what those flaws are while we can still fix them.

  18. John McIntyre

    “Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. “I had been under the impression that the First Amendment read that Congress must not pass any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

  19. Vicki

    “The press” does not have to mean the traditional newspaper. It can apply to books. It can apply to the Internet.The Founding Fathers may only have had Gutenberg's press to refer to but they weren't stupid.

  20. John McIntyre

    Of course the protection extends to other media. I was simply pointing out that, despite Mr. Eaves' sweeping statement, newspapers do in fact have a specific constitutional protection. If he wants his argument to be heeded, he might take greater care not to make statements so easily challenged on factual grounds, particularly after sneering at other people's hyperbole.

  21. david_a_eaves

    John – thank you for the comment. Actually the statement is quite specific. We all – newspapers, bloggers, public speakers – enjoy the freedom of speech. This is not a right specific to newspapers. But this is besides the point. Your comment doesn't engage the thrust of our argument – that the constitution does not state that the news media (or even journalism for that matter) is necessary for democracy. It says that freedom of speech is. Yes, newspapers enjoy that freedom – like the rest of us – but that doesn't mean they are necessary.

  22. John McIntyre

    I don't want to quibble, but the point is that the Constitution says that everyone enjoys freedom of speech, and then adds a specific provision to include journalism. If a universal right of freedom of speech sufficed to include “newspapers, bloggers, public speakers,” it would not have been necessary to add “or of the press.” The authors of the First Amendment singled out two institutions, the church and the press, for specific protection to preserve our freedoms. As to your broader argument, I can speak, as a working newspaper journalist for nearly 30 years, of endless brain-dead corporate decisions and the publication of appallingly stupid and shoddy prose. The collapse of the newspaper industry has a pronouncedly self-inflicted element. That apart, I'm afraid that I'm dubious about your glowing hopes for the new democratic age. As a copy editor, I have been fighting a rear-guard action these 30 years to ensure that the newspapers for which I worked published rpose that was factually accurate and clear. What newspapers offer is information that someone has made an attempt to verify. The uncertainty of verification is what leaves me suspicious of many blogs, Internet site, Wikipedia entries, and other manifestations of the New Order. “Messy like democracy” glosses over this point. To make informed decisions, people need reliable information.

  23. david_a_eaves

    John – thank you for the comment. My understanding is that the constitution doesn't protect the “practice of journalism” it protects the right of “the press” – by which was meant to be the right for people to write, publish and print, free speech. Journalists have earned some protections over the centuries, but these are being tested (who do we identify as journalists today?). Moreover, I don't think America's founding fathers had a notion that Fox News, CNN, or the New York Times was necessary for democracy – what was necessary was that a population had a way to speak to one another and exchange views, independently of the state. Such a system will probably emerge without newspapers.Perhaps the news industry's collapse is self-inflicted, but I suspect some strong structural forces are at play. Moreover, I'm sure some big players will survive (and possible evolve beyond recognition).Most importantly, no one is arguing that there is going to be a glowing democratic utopia – just that the future is going to look different, and that democracy isn't going to collapse if newspapers disappear. That really is the specific offensive claim we were targeting.

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  25. NRF_Vancouver

    Quality may be hard to find in traditional media or in web content but each of us defines quality in our own quite personal way. In these days of corporate concentration, there are fewer and fewer hard copy options as newspapers from one city to another look ever more like clones. Finding quality on the Internets requires diligence and time but can be done. I am thankful to have so many sources available. However, the owners of traditional media are working to reduce choice. Three times this week, my browser reported that the content I wished to view was not available in Canada. By example, someone has decided that I cannot watch clips from Jon Stewart's Daily Show from Comedy Central's website. Instead, I must look for the material at Canada's The Comedy Network.Will Canwest Global or Bell Media convince authorities that I shouldn't be reading articles from the NY Times, the WA Post or The Guardian online but should only read them in Canadian papers, if they choose to publish those articles?

  26. NRF_Vancouver

    David Sirota writing this week in Salon says, in part:”While technological and economic forces certainly battered newspapers, journalism also delivered a one-two punch to its own jaw.First, financially strapped newspapers undermined their comparative advantage by replacing audience-attracting local exclusives with cheaper national content. Then, the providers of that national content diverted resources from tough-to-report investigative journalism that builds loyal readership and into paparazzi-like birdcage liner that unconvincingly portrays politicians, CEOs and their minions as celebrities.The most preventable tragedy was the deterioration of quality. Downsized local publications were all but forced to rely on more national content, but that content didn't have to become so vapid.”—————————-Sirota is speaking of the USA, with an eye particularly on Washington DC. He is a progressive voice who was a steady and effective critic of the Republican administration. I agree that newspapers have been damaged severely by decline of quality local content. Radio broadcasting is the same. Spreading common content across a chain is understandably desirable for the operators but does not serve the consumer well.

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