How an old media drudge's actions explain the death of newspapers

Taylor and I have received a lot of link love, comments, and emails since posting the piece Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy not a symptom of its death, but one commentator has been the standard bearer in the defense of the traditional newspaper: copy editor and blogger for the Baltimore Sun John McIntyre.

John and I are are involved in a healthy debate over the future of newspapers. In addition to commenting here at, he’s written two critical piece on his own blog. What is most interesting however is that while John disagrees with us in his comments and blog, his actions demonstrate our point. Democracy is better served by the rise of the internet – even if that comes at the cost of the physical newspaper. Why? Because our audiences are better served – and informed – by observing (and participating) in our debate.

Consider our exchange in the abstract. Here are two differing perspectives (mine and John’s), which would never share the pages of even his newspaper. Not only are they directly engaged with one another, but we link to one another – sending readers to one another! We may disagree, but the act of linking requires us (and asks our readers) to acknowledge and engage the other.

But consider too, the very practical. The centerpiece of John McIntyre’s attack on our post was his claim that the US constitution does protect the freedom of the press. In countering our assertion that “Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is” John argues that:

“The Constitution does in fact protect newspapers. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Or of the press. Newspapers. Over the past couple of centuries, the legal understanding of the press has been expanded to include, for example, broadcast. But it is clear in the text that the authors of the Bill of Rights foresaw a need to protect the press — what we could now understand as organized journalism — in specific language beyond the protection of the individual right.”

But this is actually a misreading of the constitution. The term “the press” wasn’t referring to newspapers or claiming that they are necessary for democracy (or that even journalism is for that matter). It was stating that Americans have the freedom of expression both in speech and in writing. In this manner, the constitution could have said “abridging the freedom of speech, or of blogs, or word documents, or PDFs.” Indeed, it was one of John’s own reader’s (slugwell) that supplied the legal analysis from Princeton University that confirmed his misinterpretation:

“Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.”

This back and forth – this focusing of the argument, the identification of errors and misunderstandings – is physically impossible in the traditional newspaper, and for reasons of culture and pride, remain rare in online editions. And yet, this is what makes blogs so compelling to their readers. Readers are able to learn more, dive deeper and participate in the evolving product (there is no final product on the internet). Alternatively, if they aren’t interested (as many readers of both John and my blog probably aren’t) they move on.

In his second post, John decries Wikipedia because “it advises its readers not to rely on the accuracy of its entries.” At least it advises its readers! But John himself benefited from (or was victim to) the very forces that make Wikipedia trustworthy – others came to point out the errors of his analysis. This is, paradoxically, what makes Wikipedia so trustworthy (and the Baltimore Sun less so – their retractions and errors are printed discretely, away from the prying eyes of readers). Even as he decries “new media” he enjoys and takes part in its benefits.

But let me finally return to this notion of respect. I don’t agree with John, but I respect him – which is why I link to and write about him. More importantly, I think we agree on more than we disagree. John states that he was responding to “a Canadian blogger’s post rejoicing in the death of the newspaper.” Let me concede that our tone sometimes makes it seem we are gleeful about the decline of newspapers, this is not the case. Let us be clear, Taylor and I aren’t celebrating the death of the newspapers. While we take issue with the industry’s argument (and hubris) that they are a precondition or necessary for democracy, anyone who reads our piece, Missing the Link will note this line:

“However, unlike the work of our techno-utopian contemporaries, our critique should not be seen as a jubilant celebration of a dying industry. Traditional media has served society well, and with the right attitude and adjustments, could continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

As avid newsreaders and commentators, our problem is with how newspapers – and the news industry in general – has been profoundly unimaginative, blind, angry and reactionary towards new technology and possibilities. Our goal in bursting bubbles is to focus the debate on what’s possible and what’s next. Above all, we want news writers to once again talk about how they can better serve the public, not on how the public should serve them.

4 thoughts on “How an old media drudge's actions explain the death of newspapers

  1. Conrad Barwa

    Generally I would prefer neither medium 'dies' and would like the traditional newsprint media to continue. On the other hand, I am shaken by statistics that show only 9 corporations own 341 newspapers in the US. This can't be a good thing. Living in an environment where the quality and diversity of newsprint media have a different background that countries like the US may have made me more favroubale to it. IT still has a role imo and I don't think it can be replaced by bloggers; but the latter have played an important role when the traditional media largely let their readers down, such as the Trent Lott affair and of course the whole WMD fiasco, where really some of the hard questions that were being asked in the blogosphere, were notably absnet in the traditional media. This was quite a large failure and should give supporters of the latter some pause for thought.Just want to end by saying that once again, finding considerable common ground with some of your arguements, leaves me with a feeling of chill dread that I have definitely taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line :D

  2. ChrystalOcean

    Great post! Couldn't agree more re the (non) importance of dead-tree media or corporate journalism. Have shaken my head in bewilderment at journalists' tendency of late to wed their profession (art?) with big media. The two needn't be linked, but in many writings in defence of newspapers, journalists have been doing exactly that.

  3. Tariq

    Just to reinforce your point about the difference between one way and two way dialogue that online. There's a blog post on Ragan (…) that talks about doctors tweeting during surgery. The blog post itself isn't all that compelling (I still don't understand why it would be useful to tweet during a surgery), but it is the comments to the blog post that caught my eye. A number of readers commented on violations of privacy, appropriateness of tweeting during a surgery, etc. Someone responded to those concerns with a qualification that consent forms must be signed, those tweeting are not involved in the procedure itself, everyone is sterile, etc. Print media doesn't allow this kind of interactive dialogue, that as you point out above, allows the reader to dig deeper, gain more insight and understanding into the issue. That is not to say that they will always gain insight, or that the information is always reliable, but it does facilitate individual empowerment to access useful information, and makes that information available to a larger audience. Conversely, if I take it upon myself to dig deeper into a newspaper article in the Ottawa Citizen, how would I otherwise share that info with others? That is, other than my own limited circle of friends who may or may not care…

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