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.

Today’s announcement that The Washington Post has put Newsweek up for sale is obviously another indication of how the news business is changing. Newsweek already had scaled back and was in the process of becoming a digital operation, with the print edition taking a back seat. It was losing money, though, and according to the statement of Don Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Company, the Post didn’t see a way that it could reverse the trend.

News magazines may have outlived their usefulness in a world where anyone can have access to up-to-the-minute news reports 24/7. Waiting a week to read what you already know doesn’t make much sense, and there are so many voices out their already commenting that the loss of a couple of weekly voices may not seem to matter much.

HOWEVER.

Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, appeared on the Daily Show tonight to talk about the sale, what’s going on in journalism and the importance of publications like Newsweek to American democracy. He made two points that have been made here in the past couple of weeks. 1) that if people aren’t ready to pay for news, “they should be prepared to get a different kind of news”; and, 2) that in an increasingly fragmented world, Newsweek and other publications like it constitute a source of information that people have in common.

We need to be drawing on the same pool of information if we’re going to have any kind of dialogue. Meacham repeated another point made here, that the informati0n may not be accurate 100 percent of the time in a publication like Newsweek, or The Washington Post, or Time, or the New York Times, but they make an honest effort to get it right and avoid blatant bias.

We need to hear facts that we may not like, and we need to get used to the idea that there’s no free lunch. Someone has to pay for all those reporters running around–occasionally risking their lives–to gather information. They love their jobs, of course, but they have to eat and support their families. If no one wants to pay them, they’ll have to find another line of work. Once again, quoting King Lear, nothing comes from nothing.

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.

Newspapers are great aggregators. There’s something for everyone, at least everyone who reads, a newspaper—news, gossip, sports, recipes, crossword puzzles, sudoku—whatever.

The Internet, however, seems to go in exactly the opposite direction. There’s something for every taste on the Internet, it’s true, and that’s part of the problem. Between cable television and the Internet, you need never be exposed to a viewpoint or to information that conflicts with your personal worldview. We have Fox television for conservatives and MSNBC for liberals and CNN is somewhere in between. But none of them really covers the news, and Fox and MSNBC cherry pick the “facts” they report and then they make sure to present them in a way designed to make  you also see things from their point of view.

As for the Internet, you have a million (maybe only hundreds or thousands) of choices, but rare—outside of traditional news sources like the New York Times or the Washington Post, or one that takes its news from them—is a site that’s comprehensive. You can go to a sports site, or a political site, or a crossword site, or an almost anything site, but as newspapers fade away, the opportunity for a broad-based perspective possibly will fade with them.

What’s wrong with that? The political consensus in America is already shredded. If we retreat into our own ideological silos, each of us to the perspective we’re comfortable with while shutting out what we don’t want to hear, the prospects for unity, rather than division, will decline. We will be more divided and not better informed. If we can pursue our particular interests by going to sites that deal only with those, we won’t ever rub shoulders with information that we’re not interested in, however important it may be .

Alternatively, of course, someone—or some corporation—may indeed put together a comprehensive news site—but then we’ll be getting just that—a corporate point of view with all the focus on the bottom line that is doing so much damage to journalism now.

Newspapers are far from perfect, and the idea of objectivity is chimerical. But the prospects offered by the Internet take us down a road that could be dangerous for democracy.

We’ll talk about that next time.