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Newspapers' Financial Woes Won't Doom Democracy

by Dr. Les Sillars
July 2, 2010

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Dr. Les Sillars directs the Journalism Program at Patrick Henry College. Besides his duties at PHC, Dr. Sillars is Mailbag Editor at WORLD magazine and a Contributing Editor at Salvo magazine. Read full bio.

According to the website newspaperdeathwatch.com, devoted to chronicling the demise of the newspaper industry, eleven major dailies have folded since 2007. And with each round of lay-offs, journalists bemoan the death of democratic society. “If it weren’t for us,” Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote in a 2008 column, “the world couldn’t be as well informed and democracy wouldn’t operate as it should.”

Journalism is important in a free and open society. But there’s room for some perspective. Here are five reasons why the news media’s red ink may not spell doom for democracy, and why the current crisis may eventually leave it better off than before.

1. Journalists have a long history of exaggerating their own importance.

New York Herald founder James Gordon Bennett said back in 1845 that papers like his were “in fact the government of the country.” Newspapers, he added, are “always in advance of legislation – creating, shaping, correcting, informing, directing public opinion...” Journalists, of all people, should know better than to believe their own press clippings.

2. The history of American journalism shows that democracy functions even when journalists fall far short of their own professional ideals.

That democracy requires an objective, non-partisan press is a fiction of the twentieth century. American colonials fought a war for independence back when newspapers were published by printers (not editors), who gathered news from letters and essays scalped from the latest British papers arriving by boat. Colonists later founded a new system of democracy on “news” consisting mainly of essays (some brilliant, many vitriolic) edited by party hacks and would-be politicians.

Into the late 1800s most newspapers were openly partisan, and “objectivity” as a journalistic standard didn’t surface until the early decades of the twentieth century. Did the press’s many failings in the last 300 years weaken American society? Sure, but that’s the point -- American democracy survived and even flourished when -- alongside a few courageous entrepreneurs and devoted servants of the public good -- journalism was conducted by too many tyrants, self-promoters, and liars.

3. There will always be people interested in holding government accountable -- namely, the opposition.

The Nation not long ago lamented that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s reduced metro staff (down to 24 people) meant that “vast stretches of a metropolis are being neglected . . . [such cuts] add up to a crisis not just for journalism but for the political and governmental processes of the nation.”

Journalism’s watchdog role is important for holding powerful people and institutions accountable. But others besides reporters can and do fulfill this function: law enforcement, opposing parties, and even government agencies such as regulatory bodies. While reporters sometimes do uncover wrong-doing, the news media’s normal function is to generate public pressure to punish miscreants after whistleblowers have nailed the culprits.

Political opponents have an especially strong interest in exposing problems in government, yet many mistrust the news media today because so much of “accountability journalism” stems from politically motivated leaks to the media, who pass it on to the public with a veneer of objectivity. The point is: important news seems to find its audience one way or the other.

4. A new business model for news publications is right around the corner.

News media blundered badly when they began giving away their product on the Internet, but it was an understandable mistake. For the last 150 years journalists have devalued their own work, basing their business model not on selling content to subscribers but by renting eyeballs to advertisers.

While Internet advertising has not yet replaced the ad revenue lost from declining print and broadcast news audiences, the public’s willingness to pay for online content steadily grows. One survey found that half of Internet users would pay for content online, even as the technical tools for collecting fees are becoming more common. Might this foretell a news impact similar to iTunes’ on online music? See paidcontent.org and journalismonline.com.

Most importantly, the industry is slowly facing its choice of charging online or continuing its slow but steady flush to destruction. Serious journalism in the future will likely be funded primarily by subscriber fees enhanced by advertising income, rather than the reverse.

And that’s a good thing. In a pay-for-content world, a journalist’s survival will come to depend on the quality of the news he provides, making his first loyalty to his readers, not his advertisers.

5. There is a difference between the First Amendment right to free speech and existing media institutions.

When journalists bemoan the state of their industry, they tend to equate the health of the industry with the health of democracy -- two very different things. In a democracy, where public policy is strongly influenced by the “will of the people,” journalists provide the information a society needs to be free and self-governing.

Yet the public’s access to accurate information on issues of public concern is more important than whether today’s journalistic institutions continue to deliver it. What matters most is free speech.

Although historians debate what the First Amendment meant to the Founders, they definitely intended for citizens to have the ability to criticize governments and government officials without fear of reprisal, and that those who would abuse these freedoms must be held accountable. As long as we still have those things, democracy will survive. Probably.

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