Kinsley nails it again

A few weeks agao, Michael Kinsley brought blunt sanity to the dreamy talk about charging for news online in a New York Times op-ed. Today in his Washington Post column, he does likewise for dangerous dreams of subsidies. So papers are dying, he says…

What should we do? How about nothing? Capitalism is a “perennial gale of creative destruction” (Joseph Schumpeter). Industries come and go. A newspaper industry that was a ward of the state or of high-minded foundations would be sadly compromised. And for what? . . . .

If your concern is grander — that if we don’t save traditional newspapers we will lose information vital to democracy — you are saying that people should get this information whether or not they want it. That’s an unattractive argument: shoving information down people’s throats in the name of democracy.

But this really isn’t a problem. As many have pointed out, more people are spending more time reading news and analysis than ever before. They’re just doing it online. For centuries people valued the content of newspapers enough to pay what it cost to produce them (either directly or by patronizing advertisers). We’re in a transition, destination uncertain. Arianna Huffington may wake up some morning to find The Washington Post gone forever and the nakedness of her ripoff exposed to the world. Or she may be producing all her own news long before then. Who knows? But there is no reason to suppose that when the dust has settled, people will have lost their appetite for serious news when the only fundamental change is that producing and delivering that news has become cheaper.

Maybe the newspaper of the future will be more or less like the one of the past, only not on paper. More likely it will be something more casual in tone, more opinionated, more reader-participatory. Or it will be a list of favorite Web sites rather than any single entity. Who knows? Who knows what mix of advertising and reader fees will support it? And who knows which, if any, of today’s newspaper companies will survive the transition?

But will there be a Baghdad bureau? Will there be resources to expose a future Watergate? Will you be able to get your news straight and not in an ideological fog of blogs? Yes, why not — if there are customers for these things. There used to be enough customers in each of half a dozen American cities to support networks of bureaus around the world. Now the customers can come from around the world as well.

If General Motors goes under, there will still be cars. And if the New York Times disappears, there will still be news.

  • Brad Haugaard

    Good article! But I think that indirectly, many state governments are already subsidizing newspapers by requiring businesses to publish their legal ads in paper publications.

    I’m sure that at one time this made a lot of sense, but the logic of requiring businesses to publish notices in general circulation newspapers no longer holds as newspapers collapse and reach fewer and fewer readers.

    With newspapers increasingly unable to reach a mass audience, these regulations are more and more just a subsidy for companies printing paper. And the sad part is that these same rules hinder newspapers from making the switch to the Internet. If they switch, they would lose this revenue.

    I think it is time for state legislatures to change the rules to allow local Internet-only, general interest, publications to publish legal ads. It would ease the transition for newspapers and would give a boost to all local Internet journalism.

  • Interesting article, however, the larger issue is a simple one: What is news?

    And, if you answer that one honestly, you’ll observe that much of what purports to be news is not. Thus, the Internet inputs have been able to take advantage of this.

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  • Great question, Ken. And Jeff has been all over that particular well-trod mountain over the years.
    He would argue that the definition of news is changing, whether we journalists want to believe it or not.

    I’d say, for one example, that people want to know more of the good folks doing the right things in quiet fashion, right down the street, and less of the AIGs and the Blagojevichs of the world.

    In other words, they want more hope in their news. I think they deserve that. Will they pay to read/view it? Hmm, good question. But I bet some reticent advertisers could be won over by it. Over time. If we have the time to get there.

    And Brad, yep, you have to wonder how many jobs have been saved at newspapers by the blow-up of legal notices for foreclosures. Many more pages devoted to that than want ads, alas.

  • The kind of news a lot of citizens in the US are getting now is the sort of stuff that leads people to go out and buy a lifetime of ammunition for an AK-47. The piece on “All Things Considered” this evening interviewing the gun store owner made me sick. The right wing radio lock is warping the political dialogue in the US, and the death of newspapers ain’t gonna help that a bit.

    Democracy is in trouble, no matter what arguments you make for the future of the internet. Local news coverage and important news on political issues simply is not going to get to the average Joe if newspapers die. If you are ok with that, then I suppose it’s ok to say, “Let them die.” I think that is dangerous.