Be Not Afraid of the Future!

Many journalists I know have been chatting this week about Eric Alterman‘s New Yorker piece on "the death and life of the American newspaper." Alterman focuses on Huffington Post as the epitome of the "new," newspaper-killing media, portraying the site as the bad cop to Talking Points Memo’s good cop. TPM, of course, is a site that does real reporting and digging, while HuffPo’s news gathering apparatus is secondary to its function as a gathering place for liberal punditry. The risk of all this online news, Alterman writes, is that eventually, with advertising dollars moving to the web, no one will be able to afford expensive, real-time reporting projects such as the New York Times‘ Baghdad bureau, which costs $3 million annually. Alterman, somewhat credulously, quotes Arianna Huffington‘s more positive forecast of the future of news:

"As advertising dollars continue to move online—as they slowly but certainly are—HuffPost will be adding more and more reporting and the Times and Post model will continue with the kinds of reporting they do, but they’ll do more of it originally online.” She predicts “more vigorous reporting in the future that will include distributed journalism—wisdom-of-the-crowd reporting of the kind that was responsible for the exposing of the Attorneys General firing scandal.” As for what may be lost in this transition, she is untroubled: “A lot of reporting now is just piling on the conventional wisdom—with important stories dying on the front page of the New York Times."

Like Alterman, I believe the Times deserves more credit than that, but I’d caution against devolving into full on hand-wringing over the future of news. For one thing, online-only, analysis-driven news sources have been around for way longer than Alterman admits, since the advent of Salon and Slate in 1995 and 1996. Slate especially has a model that relies upon a parasitic relationship with the traditional press (see "Today’s Papers"). Secondly, non-profit journalism is a business model that can yield excellent, independent reporting, from the St. Petersburg Times, to new projects such as Pro-Publica and the Washington Independent, to our very own American Prospect. And third, for-profit online journalism is actually becoming more and more reported. The Politico, for example, no matter what you think of their coverage, employs dozens of reporters who are traveling around the United States breaking news on the presidential election.

In other words, there are lots of hopeful models out there for online news gathering. Let’s not be afraid of the future.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

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