The news and the public good

I’m spending a day this week in a journalism conference in Grafton, Vermont, and it will come as no surprise to many In Boxers that it’s a complicated and often grim conversation.

On the one hand, journalists continue to champion really important civic ideals, including open government, public disclosure and transparency, and accountability.

The folks in this room – from public media, newspapers, TV and on-line publications – are (like me) true believers.  They think a functioning democracy needs a free, fair and robust press.  The two go hand in hand.

Unfortunately, we are a full generation into the digital revolution and the future of journalism remains, in significant measure, a troubling mystery.  Many newspapers are closing, or cutting staff sharply.  TV news rooms are struggling.

As more and more people shift to getting their news from things like smartphones and i-pads, no one is quite sure how to ask them to pay for it.

The good news is that there is an amazing creative ferment, here at NCPR and across the “news business.”  People are experimenting, trying new things, collaborating, trying to reinvent themselves.

I don’t think it pays to be pollyanaish.  In this transition, some cool things have been and are being lost.  There will likely be more good and important stories missed or treated superficially as the number of reporters and editors declines.

We will, as journalists, have fewer resources to challenge authorities of all kinds, demanding the kind of information that the public needs and deserves to have.

But I think it’s very likely that some cool, responsive, and creative new models for journalism will emerge.   Our dear hope is that NCPR will be one of those innovators, finding better ways to help you stay informed.

Of course, that future hinges on a lot of you continuing to believe that we’re worth supporting, and that means people continuing to call us (or pledge on-line) to make donations.

So here’s my question to you:  Of all the sources of news that you use, how many do you support, through subscription or membership or other form of quid pro quo?

And how worried are you that your local journalism watchdog — newspaper, commercial radio station, TV station — won’t survive the digital age?

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34 Comments on “The news and the public good”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Everyone will survive but in different ways.
    The big change is in diversity. No longer is it just the local and regional papers or the three TV networks.

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  2. Mervel says:

    Good question at the end.

    My wife and I support NCPR financially, but not because we are worried about the digital age or getting coverage. We do it because we like the programming in general and listen to and know this is a not for profit in need of public support.

    In the end I think there will be a market for validated news sources due to the proliferation of too many competing random and totally unreliable “news” sources. When there is so much noise out there you search for something you can trust.

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  3. The Original Larry says:

    Traditional “news outlets” depend on their advertisers and supporters and are beholden to them financially, which influences the way they report the “news”. The digital age, with world-wide access and near real time reporting, will encourage fact-based news reporting and we will gradually see the end of “news” as revenue-generating entertainment and/or spin material.

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  4. Brian M: Do you think the the transformation is solely down to how news is consumed or do you think there’s *also* a substantive change in the sort of content being produced in the last 10-20 years?

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  5. Jon Alexander says:

    Larry,
    I can honestly say a story’s potential impact to my employer’s ad sales has NEVER influenced my reporting. It never even crosses my mind.
    This is the case for most reporters, believe it or not.
    There’s a classic push-pull between editorial and advertising at most news outlets that stretches back decades because of this fact.
    What you tout is a conspiracy theory used to validate the “citizen journalist” crowd, who indeed are playing a more important role in the information business.
    But there’s still something to be said for the institutional knowledge of full-time news agencies.
    Jon Alexander
    The Glens Falls Post-Star

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  6. Chris Morris says:

    I rarely comment on these posts, but I’d like to second Jon’s comment.

    Without naming anyone specifically, I can recall three instances in which a story I reported on led to an advertiser canceling an account, and numerous others where someone threatened to do so. If I were asked to soften the content of an article to appease a business person, or anyone for that matter, I would respectfully decline.

    It’s also common for candidates or political action committees to pull ads after an unflattering story airs or prints. I have never and will never change the way I write about a political candidate based on the threat that they might not run an ad.

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  7. Will Doolittle says:

    Although newspapers and other traditional news outlets have been hurt by the competition from the Internet, I think it has been good for the business, and good for the news consumer. There is so much more accessibility to news and information now. You can check the accuracy of your local reporting against other sources, and that’s a great thing. And reporters have no excuse now for failing to inform themselves about an issue, any issue. Reporting used to be much more provincial and limited, not to mention dull. Fires have been lit under most of the working journalists in the field, and it has raised the level of work that is being done.

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  8. Mervel says:

    I don’t think advertising will necessarily mean reporting that is biased in that there is a market for unbiased reporting, so those companies that can capture that market will get advertisers but only so long as they are seen as unbiased.

    Personally I think the internet means more disinformation in the mass of noise and thousands and thousands of babbling voices. So news is now anyone who feels like spouting off. Traditional media at least offers a barrier to entry, offers some selectivity in quality of what is reported and how it is reported. The number of “reporters” has increased massively, not declined, that is the problem.

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  9. Mervel says:

    However I think this actually creates a market for unbiased authenticated reporting. I mean does anyone believe much of anything they read on the internet or tweeted or whatever the media format; in the same way we used to believe the news? In some ways that is good as we question things more, but in some ways it just means that everything is now leveled down, it means nothing can be seen as true as reported.

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  10. Paul says:

    We support public radio here, and NCPR, we support our public TV station. We still get a Sunday paper, but we got rid of our local paper subscription this year. That’s it. I really like the Washington Post but I just look at that online. I also like Google news. I am tempted to get an online subscription to the WSJ. I like that “paper” also, but right now I am too cheap.

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  11. The Original Larry says:

    Believe me, Jon, it’s not a conspiracy theory. The idea that traditional news outlets are not influenced by their advertisers and supporters is a pipe dream. I’m not attacking anyone’s personal integrity but you can’t depend on someone for your livelihood without being influenced by them to some degree.

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  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Our household supports NCPR most fund drives and WAMC once a year. We subscribe to our local daily and would consider springing the paltry amount for on-line subscription except that I am still angry with the way they treated their employees through the last sets of layoffs–your employees are not just cogs, they are also part of the package I’m paying for; if the economics aren’t there to keep people on at least let them go with some dignity and inform your readers about it, you are a news organization after all.

    We also have subscriptions to a couple of local weeklies and I pick up a couple of other free weeklies almost every week.

    We subscribe to Newsweek which I guess I’ll have to get on my iPad soon though they seem to have gone downhill in the last few years. Also, the New Yorker which isn’t strictly news and I don’t have the time to read.

    I listen to Democracy Now most days, and regularly visit the NYTimes on-line which I have considered getting an online subscription to but still haven’t. I check out Mother Jones once in a while for free which is just so wrong because they should be the first I pay, and I check out Huffington Post most days.

    I have this quaint idea that people should be paid for their work and that entrepreneurship should be financially rewarded.

    There is also another weekly that I pick up that I feel bad about reading because the owner/editor seems to have little tolerance for angering advertisers. This particular paper seems to have whatever opinion the Editor thinks his advertisers want most. And there is usually very little to read, but it is free. They tried to sell it at one time and nobody would pay for it. It is really a shame becaus ethe Editor thinks he is a great entrepreneur. There are so many better weeklies.

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  13. Peter Hahn says:

    I subscribe to the NYTimes and NCPR. I would subscribe to more.

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  14. tootightmike says:

    NCPR is the only news source that I actually pay for. I read quite a bit of news online, from a half dozen sources daily, and regularly dig deeper into stories that either seem like bull, or need deeper understanding. I do not subscribe to any other news sources however, and I guess I’m a tad offended when they ask. This is irrational, I know….we used to pay for a newspaper after all….but even then, we let it go because there was too much worthless drivel and useless advertising to wade through.

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  15. Walker says:

    I subscribe to the New York Times and donate to NCPR, and I wander the web pretty widely.

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  16. Two Cents says:

    journalism won’t disappear, only the medium will change

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  17. Kathy says:

    What? No one here will read anything that may bring some fair and balanced reporting? Hmm.

    I read all sides and all angles. Which I guess explains why I am on this forum in the first place.

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  18. Paul says:

    knuck, Thanks we also have a subscription to the New Yorker. My wife reads it from cover to cover. I love the cartoons. I read what I have time for. I listen to democracy now sometimes. Their first person reporting without any real verificatin bothers me.

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  19. Paul says:

    Kathy what do you mean? I look at it all to some extent. What you should look for is real reporting. “fair and balanced” is a plug.

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  20. Newt says:

    Support/subscribe to NCPR, Public TV, NYT-on line . Adirondack Daily Enterprise, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly (you want fair and balanced? Atlantic does it.). The Economist (closest thing to a rational conservative journal I’ve found)Lifetime sub to DailyKos many years ago. Read Huffington Post.
    Some people play golf.

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  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, you have to take it for what it is. Many times Democracy Now will pick up a story days before it reaches the MSM, or sometimes the MSM won’t touch the story at all. At least DN gives a sense of what might be happening outside the Echo Chamber of Washington and NY. And they report on labor issues, minority issues, women’s issues, foreign affairs–no pun intended, and they do it in extended segments of 10, 15, 20 minutes or even a full hour. When they take up an issue experts from both or several sides are brought on to actually debate and not just spout sound bites.

    Yes, it is good to check other sources of news too but everyone should listen to DN once in a while to get a brain cleanser from more staid news sources.

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  22. Newt says:

    Knuck-
    Oh great, another source to add to my must read list.
    Thanks a lot.
    ;-)

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  23. Kathy says:

    Paul, “fair and balanced” was meant tongue in cheek – not a plug.

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  24. Peter Hahn says:

    I think this particular question is how do we (as a society) support journalism that isn’t paid (or unpaid) propaganda. There are many well meaning amateur bloggers out there but they aren’t going to get many of the big stories by themselves.

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  25. The Original Larry says:

    Knowing that we have access to primary sources will move traditional media closer to fact-based, impartial reporting. They risk losing audience if people find out, for instance, that they are biased or represent only a particular point of view.

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  26. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – traditional news media has been pretty good, the past 50 years or so, but that means paying professional journalists. Even the tiny actual News department at Fox news is (reported to be) unbiased. TV journalism is pretty thin, in general, though. NPR is better in terms of in-depth reporting. What we need though is really good print journalism -both national (e.g NY times) and local. Thats the endangered species – especially local print journalism.

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  27. Peter H: That’s why Pro Publica is such an interesting experiment. The journos are professional but the organization is a non-profit. It also does excellent journalism.

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  28. The Original Larry says:

    I’m not so sure I agree with the “pretty good” assessment of traditional media, unless you discount the pronounced liberal bias. From their infatuation with the Kennedys through their relentless pursuit of Nixon and right up to their ridicule of Bush, the liberal media have demonstrated a distinct antipathy for all things conservative. There are many other examples. NPR and the NY Times are icons of liberal media.

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  29. The Original Larry says:

    On re-reading my post it sounds like I think all traditional media has a liberal bias. Clearly, that’s not the case. I’m sure a liberal poster can (and should) match everything I said from their perspective.

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  30. George Nagle says:

    In Saranac Lake we are fortunate to have the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

    I say “fortunate” because the paper provides good journalism. In addition to news of local events from time to time the paper offers a lengthy article digging into an ongoing issue, e.g. the Hotel Saranac.

    They report some national news but the local is given greater play.

    Am I correct in believing that newspapers providing local news, news that generally isn’t available elsewhere, are prospering?

    Yes, I subscribe to the ADE in addition to the online New York Times and print versions of the New Yorker and New York Review of Books and contribute to NCPR and Vermont Public Radio (for classical music).

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  31. mervel says:

    I don’t think any news organizations are prospering. It sounds like they are barely surviving and many are going broke. Employment in the sector in general is falling like a rock. Journalism is not something you would encourage your children to go into except as a hobby.

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  32. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Knuckle, I would just note that your reasons for listening to Democracy Now are the same reasons others flocked to Fox and now to The Blaze or other outlets. I’m sure based on my limited exposure to DN that people sharing their view have felt the same as many of us on the right have felt when viewing or listening to an NPR/MSNBC/AP/NYT/CBS story- Huh?!

    The only sticking point I find with Mr Manns leading post is this- “On the one hand, journalists continue to champion really important civic ideals, including open government, public disclosure and transparency, and accountability.

    The folks in this room – from public media, newspapers, TV and on-line publications – are (like me) true believers. They think a functioning democracy needs a free, fair and robust press. The two go hand in hand.”

    The problem I see is that journalists very often take a stance on “On the one hand, journalists continue to champion really important civic ideals, including open government, public disclosure and transparency, and accountability.” The media is not there to judge as Mr Mann so often puts it- nuance. It’s there to report the facts. But because this isn’t and probably never has been the case we have a news media that clearly takes sides in issues it shouldn’t. I would put a whole lot more faith in believing the news media was truly unbiased in their reporting if they’d simply give the facts rather than pre-digesting the news for me. I can judge accurately what is right and wrong if you give me all the facts alone without slant or bias. It may be boring for the writer, but IMO that’s all the news needs to do.

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  33. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Edit last para to read- The problem I see is that journalists very often take a stance on “civic ideals, including open government, public disclosure and transparency, and accountability.” Based on whose values? The media is not there to judge as Mr Mann so often puts it- nuance. It’s there to report the facts. But because this isn’t and probably never has been the case we have a news media that clearly takes sides in issues it shouldn’t. I would put a whole lot more faith in believing the news media was truly unbiased in their reporting if they’d simply give the facts rather than pre-digesting the news for me. I can judge accurately what is right and wrong if you give me all the facts alone without slant or bias. It may be boring for the writer, but IMO that’s all the news needs to do.

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  34. TomL says:

    The only place in the paper where only ‘facts’ are reported is the weather page, the sports box scores, and the page with the stock & bond prices. Journalists have to chose from the vast glut of information and disinformation around them what are the stories their readers / listeners (or market) want to hear, and if they are concerned about educating the public, need to hear. This is what journalists do, and what someone compensates them to do. Some people pay attention to certain news and news sources because it feels good to hear whatever confirms a preexisting view. Others turn to news and news sources because they are curious to receive information or analysis about things that they do not know about.

    My sense is that fewer and fewer people are curious enough to pay (or sit through commercial ads) to learn about things that challenge a preexisting view or provide new information. But maybe it has always been this way – certainly yellow journalism goes back to the beginning of the Republic.

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