Newspapers have become the bullied schoolkid of American journalism.
Meaning that, as a small child will surrender his lunch money to bigger kids and spend the noon hour watching other people eat, so have newspapers wound up in the ignominious position of surrendering our product – information – to Internet and cable outlets and watching them reap handsome profits from aggregating and re-reporting it while we furlough employees and cut back home delivery. They take our product and kick our butts with it.
So it was with no small interest that I received last week’s news of the sale of the Washington Post. After 80 years of stewardship by the storied Graham family, the Post will become the property of Jeff Bezos, the man who founded Amazon.com. Sale price: $250 million.
But what happened last week represents more than a transfer of assets. No, it embodies a generational shift that will, let us fervently hope, resurrect an industry that has somehow managed the odd paradox of being vital yet moribund.
To put that another way: One gets tired of providing the boots with which someone else kicks one’s backside.
If that state of affairs represents a humiliation for the newspaper business, it should be regarded warily even by those who draw their paychecks from other industries. They should ask themselves what will happen to the electronic media that use and aggregate our product in the event we are no longer around to create it. And if that information is no longer available anywhere, what happens to the people who need and depend on it?
It is not often remarked upon, not much appreciated and little understood, but newspapers – yes, I mean the old-fashioned business of printing on dead trees accounts of things that happened yesterday – are the foundation of American journalism.
Think about it: How often do you see a cable news station, local TV news outlet or blog originate – not aggregate or opine upon, but originate – some story of major local significance not involving violent crime? As a rule – yes, there are exceptions – they don’t do that. They are not designed to.
Cable puts its resources into national and international coverage so you need never suffer for lack of information about Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and various real housewives. Local TV news puts its resources into the “Breaking News” graphics they use to announce seemingly every armed robbery, house fire and freeway pileup. Bloggers don’t have resources.
Yes, when the governor takes kickbacks, when the mayor stuffs the ballot box, when the innocent man winds up on death row, the story may migrate to one of those platforms. But you can be reasonably sure it will originate in a newspaper that takes seriously its obligation to watchdog journalism.
Such papers are in trouble neither because watchdog journalism ceased to be crucial, nor because people stopped reading or needing it. Truth is, we have more readers than ever. Unfortunately, many of them pay nothing for the privilege because they read online and we’ve failed to figure out how to leverage that popularity to support our (very expensive) operations.
Hence, the hopes that are pinned on Bezos. As a man who revolutionized American retailing and became a digital pioneer in so doing, perhaps he has ideas those of us born and raised in the world of news on paper are incapable of having. Perhaps he can help the Post – and by extension, the rest of us – keep our lunch money and more effectively monetize our product. Perhaps he can show us how to save journalism.
This, anyway, is my hope. If you regard an informed electorate as crucial to the function of a democracy, it should be your hope, too.