Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

“And the world will know!” *

with 2 comments

Dara Lind at The American Scene:

TJ Sullivan, independent journalist and LA Observed blogger, has a modest proposal for saving journalism and by extension “American Democracy” (his caps): Take to the barricades firewalls. He wants all newspapers and magazines to shut down their Web content for a week and force Americans to pick up the dead-tree copies instead.

His proposed start date for the shutdown is July 4th, which should indicate how steeped his manifesto is in the defense-of-democracy argument. To bolster his case he uses a passage from Thomas Jefferson’s personal correspondence as a recurring motif.

Rad experiment. But the Jefferson business? I’m with Dara:

The press is only necessary to democracy insofar as it produces an informed populace. Once the “curmudgeons” (to crib a term from Jay Rosen) start thinking of journalism as something that comes on paper, they’re barking up the wrong dead tree.

Sullivan writes:

Pulling the plug is perhaps the only way to make people outside of journalism sit up and take notice that this isn’t about jobs in journalism, but American Democracy.

He seems to be suggesting printed newspapers mean the exact same thing to democracy today as they did in the 1700s. With so many other (arguably more convenient and cheaper) ways for The Populace to get information, the idea of newspapers as the only bastions of government watchdoggery—and their profitability the screw on which the very definition of a free press turns—is silly.

Also—well, I’m beginning to think Sullivan’s experiment is flawed not just on premise but on execution. For one, what difference would a week make? People who are used to reading news online aren’t going to have time (or inclination) to get a paper subscription, or find where to pick up a daily copy. They’re not going to alter their reading-the-news-in-the-morning-from-their-work-computers routine because it’s been disrupted for a mere 7 days. And, besides, you can’t just shut down the Internet for a week. If daily papers went “print only” for that time period, TV-news Web sites, Web magazines like Salon and Slate and other Web-only publications would just pick up the slack. Heck, bloggers would probably sludge away from their laptops to pick up hard-copy papers at their local corner stores and simply type up the quotes they want to quote instead of control-c and v-ing. But the news would still be available online, and most people would still be going there to get it.

Time’s Walter Isaacson last week suggests a much more pragmatic (or radical?) approach:

Henry Luce, a co-founder of TIME, disdained the notion of giveaway publications that relied solely on ad revenue. He called that formula “morally abhorrent” and also “economically self-defeating.” That was because he believed that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse.

[…] I am hoping that this year will see the dawn of a bold, old idea that will provide yet another option that some news organizations might choose: getting paid by users for the services they provide and the journalism they produce.

Go read about his proposed business model—micropayments and subscriptions and EZ-Pay, oh my!—because it’s kind of awesome.

[*From the greatest movie musical about the newspaper industry ever]

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Written by Elizabeth

February 10, 2009 at 4:16 pm

2 Responses

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  1. “With so many other (arguably more convenient and cheaper) ways for The Populace to get information, the idea of newspapers as the only bastions of government watchdoggery—and their profitability the screw on which the very definition of a free press turns—is silly.”

    It actually isn’t as silly as you might think. The major news networks all crib a lot of their stories from the NY Times, the Washington Post, and the WSJ. In Los Angeles, the local television stations get most of their news — and almost all of their serious, non-breaking news — from the LA Times and other local newspapers, as do the local drive time talk radio guys. One problem newspapers have long faced is that lots of other information distributors are profiting off the reporting that the newspaper bankrolls.

    Conor Friedersdorf

    February 10, 2009 at 6:16 pm

  2. That’s a good point. Ohio was the same way. But don’t you think if for some reason the newspapers ceased to do this, other outlets—TV, magazines, web-only sites, etc—would pick up the slack? Or no?

    Elizabeth

    February 11, 2009 at 1:06 pm


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