“Every previous era looks innocent.” – James Fallows
“We don’t know what we are building. But from a position of optimism and respect for the public, we have to invent tools and see what they become.” – Jeff Jarvis
If you are in the mood for a gloomy conversation today, I suggest you strike up a conversation about the current state of the American media with an I-still-read-the-newspaper-every-morning-in-print-form member of the Baby Boomer Generation. Collapsing newspapers and foreign bureaus with the budget and the staff to cover complex domestic and foreign events; increasingly voyeuristic, powerful, and popular Internet startup sites; and a focus on real-time news at the expense of professional editing are all arguments to support the “Our Media is Collapsing Around Us” thesis. It’s a pretty strong case.
But modern-day Renaissance man James Fallows (link to his blog), who I mentioned once before in the most popular post on this site takes a long view on the current media changes and arrives at a more optimistic perspective in the article “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media” in the April/May edition of The Atlantic.
The article is worth skimming, especially to hear Fallows describe the brief history of American media, concluding that “the relative stability of big media in the golden-age decades after World War II left a misleading impression of how tumultuous the news business had been through most of America’s past.”
Summing up the Internet-era media modifications, Fallows asserts that “with each passing month, people can get more of what they want and less of what someone else thinks they should have.” Instead of NBC and CBS execs and the WaPost editor determining what you read and what you hear, you can read exactly what you want to read. My favorite quote from the article is from Jill Lepore. Jill argues,
“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic. It’s that so much more of American life is public. I think that goes a long way to explaining what seems to be a ‘decline.’ Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization.”
And now, for a personal tangent.
Having blogged for a little over two months, I can relate to Jill. There’s typos in every one of my posts. The writing here is unedited and unprofessional and, as you may have noticed, is more focused on satisfying my desire to write than on reaching a certain target audience. But blogging is also damn good practice for developing ideas about a wide range of topics. It’s far more vulnerable, creative, and stimulating than I anticipated. And, it comes with its share of dangers.
The boundaries for plagiarism on a blog are often blurry. Take my lengthy quotes of Jim Fallows in this post, for example. I doubt he will mind this time since a grand total of about 50 people will probably view the post, but there’s no way to be sure. Did I co-opt the proprietary content of The Atlantic? I honestly have no idea. I’ve already had one person email me and ask that I remove content to protect an individual’s privacy, so I can only imagine how many requests large, bona fide news organizations receive each day. Ethics and journalism have a complicated and changing relationship.
OK, tangent is over—
Near the end of his article, Fallows spells out four common fears about the new, Internet-era media:
• that this will become an age of lies, idiocy, and a complete Babel of “truthiness,” in which no trusted arbiter can establish reality or facts;
• that the media will fail to cover too much of what really matters, as they are drawn toward the sparkle of entertainment and away from the depressing realities of the statehouse, the African capital, the urban school system, the corporate office when corners are being cut;
• that the forces already pulverizing American society into component granules will grow all the stronger, as people withdraw into their own separate information spheres;
• and that our very ability to think, concentrate, and decide will deteriorate, as a media system optimized for attracting quick hits turns into a continual-distraction machine for society as a whole, making every individual and collective problem harder to assess and respond to.
Here’s my two cents on the future of newspapers and foreign coverage:
- The newspapers will be OK. Local newspapers–and a handful of national newspapers–will survive. Mid-range newspapers from cities like Denver, Seattle, and Phoenix, will die a quick death. Many already have. The big newspapers will find a way to run a profit, and if they don’t, wealthy funders will continue to fill the funding gap. And these big newspapers will expand their coverage and capture a significant portion of the market in medium-to-large cities that have lost their own newspapers. Local newspapers will survive simply because people care if the local supermarket closes or a murder occurs in their town. And, as Fallows reports, “local coverage could in some ways become much better, as systems arise to match “hyper-local” news—the burglary down the street, the test scores at the neighborhood school—with the audience directly affected by it.”
- Coverage will not suffer. The primary fear will be that coverage of foreign events will suffer terribly because, for example, the Los Angeles Times will only be able to afford 1 reporter in Beijing instead of 4 and the New York Times will be able to afford 4 instead of 12. I think this is true, but the decline in the quantity of reporters from traditional news outlets does not spell the decline in the quality of coverage of international events.
- First, this view overestimates the quality of past foreign coverage. Anyone who remembers the quality of old-media public debate in the lead-up to the Iraq War might agree that if this is a decline, it has a low starting point. It’s not a swipe at traditional reporters, but they often have constrained and limited access. To take one example, dissidents in China are naturally more eager to talk to foreign reporters since their ideas won’t get much coverage in the domestic media. This, in my view, contributes to a slight bias and overestimation of Chinese domestic instability.
- Second, the quantity and quality of foreign-owned and foreign-operated news organizations is expanding. So we might not get as great of coverage from The NY Times in Islamabad, but the online, Engligh-language version of The Hindu from India can supplement the reduced coverage from US-based newspapers.
- Third, the new media revolution is a breakthrough for coverage of foreign affairs. Take the Egyptian revolution (as Fallows cites in the end of his article) as an example of the power of individual reporting through YouTube, Twitter, and in-country blogs that get picked up and circulated widely through other sites. All in all, coverage of events from Johannesburg to Jakarta will not only survive, but will thrive.
I do share one concern about new media. Many worry that the media is shortening our attentions spans and leading us to be hyper-distracted all the time; that Google is, in effect, making us stupid. I feel it when I try to sit down and read an actual book and find it far more difficult than when I was in high school and shared a family computer instead of owning my own laptop, and it’s why I wrote this post. Here is Fallows’ Darwinian take on this potentially man-made ADHD epidemic:
“At an individual level, I think the “distracted Americans” scare will pass. Either people who manage to unplug, focus, and fully direct their attention will have an advantage over those constantly checking Facebook and their smart phone, in which case they’ll earn more money, get into better colleges, start more successful companies, and win more Nobel Prizes. Or they won’t, in which case distraction will be a trait of modern life but not necessarily a defect.”
So what do you think? Will newspapers disappear? Is that overall a bad thing? Do you find your attention span shrinking? Are you generally worried or hopeful about the future of the media?