Stop the presses! (permanently)

STONE the crows! but newspapers are in strife. Even worse people are losing interest in news as we know it.

You might have noticed, but given the way ever fewer people read them probably didn’t, reports in the papers that sales are still shrinking. The good news is although circulation figures are still dropping the industry is holding up better here than in the US. The bad news is that when the good news is the market is shrinking slower than elsewhere things are crook indeed.

The obvious cause of the crookness is the Internet and the way it provides endless news and comment fast and for free – making it hard for print, with its huge production and distribution costs and long lead times to compete.

This is (relatively) easily fixed. Papers are producing more online, improving what they offer advertisers and sooner or later they will coax readers into paying for content. And online products are vastly cheaper to produce.

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows illustrates how product form and distribution problems are being worked out.

But there is an even more alarming issue – what if a mass audience is not interested in what journalists produce, whether distributed digitally or in hard copy?

Jack Fuller suggests journalism itself, rather than just how it is delivered, is in trouble in his new book, (only in hard copy, ironically, you can’t Kindle it), What is Happening to News.

At least journalism as it is practised and consumed at the elite end of the industry, what he calls the “standard model of professional journalism” and defines as consisting of  “the disciplines of accuracy, disinterestedness in reporting, independence from the people and organisations reported upon or affected by the report, a model of presentation sometimes called objective or neutral, and the clear labelling of what is fact and what is opinion.”

According to Fuller the standard model is under attack from forces as new as the Internet and as old as the prehistoric interests embedded in our brains.

The net has created endless news and opinion and because everything is equally available the gates once kept by editors and expert writer are broken down.

And what we like to learn online is the same information our ancestors were keen to acquire, information which appealed to people living in small groups and who needed to know who to trust and how people dealt with danger and distress. ‘Twas ever thus. Canadian psychologist Hank Davis looked at page-one stories over 300 years and found a consistent interest in the same subjects.

So what’s the problem? Readers have always picked the sort of press they prefer and the standard model prospered in the 20th century because there was enough of an audience interested in the objective reporting of hard information.

The problem is that now we are in a media universe where the serious report faces the sensational on equal terms – and guess which people find most interesting. Even worse the Internet ensures that they can get as many morality tales and scandal stories as they like, reducing the authority of editors to decide what we need to know.

Certainly professional audiences have access to arguments and information online but the agenda setting press is in trouble – and that is bad for everybody. Because the top end of the printed mass media produce what Fuller calls “the data of democracy”, the stories on politics and policy, politicians and bureaucrats hate having reported.

This is very bad news indeed for the Americans, especially for those in one-newspaper cities. If the daily goes under, or adapts to a world where people do not want to read about public policy the in-depth analysis of state and local government that is too parochial for the Wall Street Journal or New York Times and which tabloid TV ignores goes with it.

And while Australia is in better shape, (every capital city has at least one local daily plus two national papers) what happens if Fuller is right and what we are seeing is less a change in the way news and analysis is delivered as a transformation in what people want to read?

A change that means political reporting becomes all about scandal and economics and public policy coverage retreats to the blogosphere and high-priced specialist newsletters.

Newspapers that shrink into scandal sheets or become the partisan voices of political parties or interest groups, which is what they mainly were in the 19th century, will impoverish public life.

Fuller has a less half-baked than hopeless solution to stop the standard form ending; journalists appealing to readers emotions by putting themselves in the story. This demonstrates he has never endured the all too many Australian columnists who think solipsism is something to aspire to and write of little other than their own lives.

And it ignores the obvious – opinion masquerading as analysis has no place in the daily public policy writing appearing in the papers an informed democracy depends on.

So what’s to do? Damned if the crows know. But we better hope Fuller is wrong. The function serious newspapers fill can easily adjust to a different delivery system. But if the standard model disappears it will take what matters most in journalism with it.