No one blames the New York Times Company. If the only way it can save its flagship New York Times is to shut down the Boston Globe, then the owner’s choice is easy. And no one blames the management at the Globe either. The paper hasn’t been badly run; it’s just become very unprofitable over the past decade — like most other big-city newspapers in the United States.
Where this story touches our regular topic is in the field of journalism. Real journalism — “breakthrough journalism,” as Martin Baron, the Globe’s editor, calls it. It’s part of what keeps our institutions open and democratic. It protects all of us, all the time, even if we never think about it. Like the Washington Post’s Watergate stories, starting in June 1972 with Five Held in Plot to Bug Democratic Offices Here (and eventually leading all the way to enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act). Like the Wall Street Journal’s crystal-ball reporting in 2001 about the effects of deregulating the energy industry (think Enron and the California power shortages). And the Globe’s own stories — over 1,000 of them — about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
But as the Globe’s Baron also said last week, breakthrough journalism doesn’t come cheap. It can be “shockingly expensive,” he said, meaning it’s now clear that declining ad revenues at newspapers won’t support that kind of journalism anymore. Yet it’s also true that a lot of the news we need originates from the newspapers and then shows up on TV, radio and in cyberspace.
Can the dailies save themselves by exploiting the internet? It’s not that simple, as the Globe’s case shows. In February, for example, the Globe had 5.7 million unique visitors on its website, Boston.com. “No other site in Boston or New England,” Baron said, “comes anywhere close. Among the newspaper websites in the top 10, ours came in second to the New York Times in the time people spent on our site, ahead of the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post.” Yet the Globe is losing money faster than ever.
All this is unsettling — and for good reason. While newsrooms everywhere are shrinking or disappearing, no one knows what will happen to the professional journalism that’s being displaced. In a brilliant and disturbing essay called Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, Clay Shirky says it’s not exaggerating to compare the transition we’re in now with the 1500s, when the invention and spread of the printing press changed everything. He says revolutions like the one caused then by the printing press and now by the internet are chaotic. The ground shifts and institutions are undermined. Describing the 1500s, Shirky says:
The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?
And that’s what’s happening now. The old stuff, Shirky says, “gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” So no one today knows how our news will be reported and delivered tomorrow.
But we know this: in a democracy, journalism matters. It’s the eyes and ears of the people, and sometimes their voice. To paraphrase the media critic Robert McChesney, journalism is how we make sure elections are fair and honest, how we monitor the government’s use of its powers to make war and prosecute citizens, and how we keep public and private institutions from being overwhelmed by unchecked corruption.
Some are saying the old newspapers deserve to die. As businesses, that may be true. But what about journalism itself? Where will it go after the papers are gone?