Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, has written a nice piece in the wake of last week’s announcement that The Washington Post was putting the magazine up for sale. Someone, or some group of someones, may well buy it. The point I’m most interested in from Meacham’s piece is:

“There is a place for NEWSWEEK in some form in a fragmented culture. We represent an opportunity to focus the attention of a large number of people on a single topic. The moment of focus may be fleeting, but there are fewer and fewer common denominators left in American life, and the conversation is not going to be enriched by having fewer still. We are not the only catcher in the rye standing between democracy and the abyss of ignorance and despair.” (my emphasis)

That statement may be a little melodramatic, but Meacham’s entirely correct. At the risk of repeating myself (again), the point is precisely that we need a common pool of information and a common point of departure in focusing on the myriad issues confronting us. The challenge for the media is restoring the public’s trust that we’re presenting a fair, balanced and comprehensive account of whatever issue we’re discussing (and I mean truly fair and balanced). Unfortunately, we have few institutions that still command universal public respect. Have our institutions become m0re corrupt, or have they always been as they are now and we just know more about them? One thing is for sure, we can’t on the one hand demand total purity on the part of our public servants and then on the other hand search for any impurity, however slight or minor, to discredit them. Men and women of goodwill will decide, as many have, that the game isn’t worth the effort if their reward will be a splash of mud all over them.

The other point I’m interested in from Meacham’s piece is this:

“… the task now is to find the right economic and digital means to meet our traditional ends while trying to discover a sustainable business model. ”

I’m not sure exactly what he means. Obviously, any enterprise has to be able to pay its bills to survive, regardless of whether it’s a profit-making business or one sustained by an angel of one kind or another. It would be better all around for the enterprise to be profit-making because that would show, among other things, that it’s meeting the wants and needs of its audience and not simply indulging some elite’s whims or interest. When Meacham says “the right digital means” though, is he being deliberately obtuse? He published his piece on “the right digital means”, so where is the mystery? The task is to present a product that will bring enough paying customers back on a regular basis to show a profit and keep the ‘publication’ (if that is the right word in this context) going. Newsweek, or any other magazine, has to recognize the expectation that readers have been encouraged to develop that something new and interesting will be there for them to read whenever they turn to a publication. And they’re not going to wait until Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday morning or afternoon every week to get it.

This is the venue, for better or worse, where Newsweek and all the other magazines and newspapers have to sink or swim. And they will just have to get better and quicker at presenting whatever they are doing in order to stay afloat. And readers, as I have said too many times already, will have to get used to the idea that they’re going to have to pay for information. In the best of all possible worlds, maybe information would be free. In this one, it isn’t.

Almost nine years ago, Cass Sunstein, then a law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote an article for the Boston Review arguing that the Internet posed a danger to democracy because of its potential for ghettoizing groups according to their views and interests: The Daily We—Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?.

I confess I had not read the article until this morning when I read David Brooks’s column in the New York Times citing Sunstein’s article. Although I had never read the article, I have written much the same thing here (in a much pithier way if I do say so myself). Brooks takes issue with Sunstein, and I guess by extension, me. He cites a new study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro at the University of Chicago that disputes Sunstein’s argument. Brooks says that the Gentzkow-Shapiro study verifies that conservatives tend to gravitate toward Internet sites that reflect their views, and liberals do the same. But, Brooks says of the study, “the core finding is that most Internet users do not stay within their communities.” Brooks says the study shows that they move around, grazing here and there, and not necessarily in places where they agree with what they’re reading. If you want to read the study, by the way, it will cost you $5 to download it and I haven’t decided whether I want to shell out the money or not. At the moment I’m willing to accept Brooks’s reporting of it.

First of all, I’m skeptical about the Gentzkow-Shapiro findings even if I haven’t read them first hand. This is only one study, and I don’t know anything about the methodology.

Even if I did accept their findings, I still have a problem with all of these new sites. Once again, who are the people behind the sites? How thorough are they in gathering information? What is their agenda? Who checks their reports and how careful are they? Newspapers—good ones anyway—have a careful vetting process, endeavoring to insure that what they print is correct, thorough and fair. Obviously they don’t always succeed in that effort, but that’s the professional standard that they measure themselves by.

Back in the day, when I worked for The Washington Post, I used to attend the daily story conference where each section of the paper pitched its offerings for the front page. Questions were raised only occasionally about a particular story in that meeting, but a later meeting—the front-page conference—was a different matter. At the second meeting, the same editors met, but then they were confronted with a layout of the proposed front page for the next day’s paper. The editor from any section with a story being considered for the front page had to be prepared to defend his or her stories, answer questions, often penetrating, from colleagues and explain why that story merited front-page display. The other editors almost always had read the stories proposed for the front page by the time of the second meeting, and it wasn’t unusual for them to find holes in the reporting.

That kind of peer review made the paper better. It also served as yet another filter that stories had to pass through on their way into the paper. All stories were typically read by at least two, sometimes three or four editors before making it into print.

What’s the vetting process for online news and opinion sites where anyone—yes, including me—can say or write anything without a reader knowing whether it’s true, false or a total fabrication?

So maybe the Internet won’t cause the ghettoization of news and opinion even though the diversity of choices will mean that we’ll have in common fewer experiences and sources of information (another point where Sunstein and I agree); but it’s going to be increasingly difficult to know the source the news and opinions we can get from the Internet.

And that can’t be a good thing.

Once upon a time in America, every city had a newspaper. Newspapers were part of a city’s identity—especially in smaller towns, but also in big cities: The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Courier Journal in Louisville. It helped that these papers often were owned by a local family—the Otises and Chandlers in L.A., the McCormicks in Chicago and the Binghams in Louisville. The owners were active in their communities, participating in its life, often for the better, but sometimes not.

All of that is changing. The LA Times is owned by the Chicago Tribune, now a bankrupt corporation. The Courier Journal is owned by Gannett. The Louisville Times, which the Binghams also owned, folded years ago. Outside of New York and Washington, DC, few large papers are locally owned, much less by a family.

Corporations, of course, don’t owe their loyalty to a local community but to the stockholders who own them. Now, on top of the disappearance of locally owned newspapers and in some places of any newspaper, we have the growth of information of questionable quality with no idea of where it’s coming from.

The word community is related to the word common, something that individuals together hold as one. It’s hard to see how an Internet site can bind a geographic community together. In the early days of the Internet there was a lot of talk about “community,” and that may be the case in an abstract way. Chances are, however, that we don’t live next door to many people who may participate in an Internet community to which we belong.

Democracy depends, among other things, on a sense of community—values, goals and obligations held in common—a sense of real identity that we share. And in what sense do we belong to any Internet community? Our participation is evanescent. We can come and go as we please, unseen and unheard, totally unnoticed and anonymous. We identify ourselves by using avatars, a representation of ourselves rather than the concrete reality. We can form “relationships” which, with rare exceptions, are just as virtual as the Internet itself because we usually neither hear nor see the other party. True, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams famously communicated with each other for years over a distance of hundreds of miles and never laid eyes on each other. But they had known each other personally before they began their correspondence.

“Belonging” to an Internet “community” based on a particular interest may put us in touch with others who live tens or hundreds or even thousands of miles away, but Internet communities are really a series of ghettoes where like-minded people congregate. Ghettoes foster parochialism rather than cosmopolitanism. What’s needed is an integration of our physical and intellectual lives; rather than facilitating that integration, the Internet threatens to inhibit it.

How will we communicate with the people around us if we lose the one institution that has been a common source of information regardless of what our individual interests and passions may be?

The danger is that instead of nurturing community, the Internet may abet the already alarming growth of anomie. We may discover that the Internet’s offering of diversity and a wealthy of choices is a double-edged sword.