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.

Sunday’s New York Times brings a book review by Bill Keller of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley. In the process of reviewing the book, Keller refers to the divergence between the old journalism where “a significant population of serious people feel the need for someone with training, experience and standards–reporters and editors–to help them dig up and sort through the news, identify what;’s important and make sense of it” on one side and the new journalism, thanks to the Internet where anyone can write what they want about what they want about anything without having to filter their writing through anyone else.

With the old journalism, Keller says, “the authority of professional journalists is both a valuable convenience for readers without the time or inclination to manage a tsunami of information on their own, and a civic good, in that a democracy needs a shared base of trustworthy information upon which to make its judgments.”

I’ve tried to argue much the same here. A cadre of professional interests, of course, constitute an elite, and in a democracy elitism and elites pose problems. Nevertheless, we can’t all be experts on everything. That’s why we have physicians, dentists, mechanics, tax preparers and, lamentably perhaps, lawyers. For quite some time Americans were content to allow an elite–or a few elites–to run domestic and foreign affairs, trusting (a word to which I will return) them to look out for the public’s interest. Some portion of the population, of course, disagreed with the elites and thought government wasn’t being run to further everyone’s interests. That’s to be expected in a democracy.

One of the elites was the group of people who watched the other elites and reported on what they were doing, not always completely, or accurately or even fairly, but enough of the time that the public usually had a good sense of what was going on. And, for the most part, the public trusted the information that this informing elite–journalists–provided them.

The key word here is trust. People for the most part trusted “the press” or the media as the press came to be called and they trusted their government. When they didn’t trust the government, because it was a democracy, they threw them out of office and chose another bunch to govern.

In those days, the public had a common reservoir of information to draw on. There were differences from one newspaper to another and then from one television network to another, but the basic pool was the same. As time went on, journalists developed standards, ethics and other best practices that became engrained in the profession.

The Internet changes all of that . One no longer needs a printing press, or a television or radio station to communicate with the rest of the world. Anyone can communicate anything to everyone, or at least to those who care to visit the communicator’s blog or website or read an email. There’s no one to ask the communicator “How do you know this?” or “Where did you hear this” or inquire about the reliability of the source. Correspondingly, we don’t know how reliable the information is or what the motive of the communicator might be.

Obviously, the old way wasn’t perfect. Information printed by newspapers or magazines more than once in a blue moon wasn’t accurate, complete or fair. Henry Luce had his own view of the world and when the facts didn’t conform to it, he tried to make the reporting reflect what he believed to be true. People knew that, however. They learned to take what Time magazine reported with a grain of salt because they knew the source and could evaluate the information accordingly. And Time was only one of a number of publications and other news sources. People had choices, but not so many that they were bewildered by them and couldn’t possibly sift through them all or determine what was accurate and what wasn’t.

So, the information elite has been shattered. Keller characterized the amount of news out there as a tsunami. Good word. Now we have the potential for a tsunami of communicators out there bringing us “information.” Are we better off?

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.

Since I started writing this, Apple has released the iPad. I’m not going to get into whether it’s revolutionary or not, but iPad does begin to address the issue of portability. It is lighter than a laptop, apparently has better resolution, and the availability of WiFi and 3G means that a user can access the Internet from almost anywhere. That’s all to the good.

The idea of the iPad isn’t entirely new. Back in the ’90s Apple released something called the Newton, which was a clunklier, less powerful version of the iPad. The Newton was a bust

It’s great to have something with the capability of the iPad. The issue isn’t whether or not the iPad replaces newspapers, because the method of delivery isn’t as important as what is delivered and who is delivering it. News on paper isn’t the issue. The critical question is what and who are behind the presentation of the information. What are the professional standards of the people sending out the information? What kind of vetting process do they use in editing what they present? Who are they? What kind of ethics do they adhere to?

Whether or not the iPad is the last word in electronic delivery of the news is less important than the answers to those questions despite the nostalgia that some readers–primarily older readers–have for the feel of paper between their fingers as they read the news.

In fact, electronic delivery solves a lot of the problems dogging the news industry by cutting overhead. If newspapers hadn’t been so naive and gullible about the Internet–especially the idea that everything should be free–they might have been able to make the transition from paper to digital presentation without hemorrhaging as many subscribers as they have. That’s all water over the dam at this point. What’s important is to find a way to preserve the institution of the news organization with all of its values, standards, practices and ethics regardless of how the news is delivered.

And, at the risk of saying the emperor has no clothes, it probably will mean that people will have to pay for it. Otherwise you will be getting what you pay for. And, as King Lear said, nothing will come of nothing

We live in an age of aggregation. Supermarkets have replaced vegetable stands and butcher shops. Pharmacies have now become drug stores, which carry cosmetics, shampoo, snack and groceries, and, incidentally, fill prescriptions. Shopping malls make it possible to buy more than we really need in one place.

Newspapers are another aggregator. Besides national, foreign and local news, newspapers offer sports, recipes, household hints, calendars of coming events, reviews of movies, plays and books (although reviews may soon be a thing of the past). In days gone by, if your town had a good newspaper, you could keep up with your community and the rest of the world just by reading your local paper.

Times have changed. Newspapers are closing all over the country, but a lot of people don’t seem to mind because they can still get their news on the Internet. The New York Times and The Washington Post, to name two papers that certainly deserve to be called “good”, still offer news up for free on the Internet.

You can also go to Google, or Yahoo, or any number of other sites and get news without paying. Where do they get their news? Google and Yahoo and a lot of other so-called news sites get their news either directly or indirectly from conventional, old technology sources, like the New York Times, The Washington Post or the Associated Press.

But what if newspapers went out of business entirely? Where would Google, Yahoo and the rest of the free news sites get their news? Would they build their own news-gathering organizations? Would they charge for it? Would readers be willing to pay, and, if so how much? Google certainly could afford to create a news gathering organization. It would only cost a billion dollars or so (maybe more) to build a national and international news operation, but would the investment be worth it?

Local news might be another story. In many instances, local news as we know it might just disappear because there wouldn’t be enough money in it to make it profitable for anyone to set it up.

We started out by assuming that Google or Yahoo or someone would be willing to make the investment required to build a decent news organization.

But what if none of them was willing? What then? We’ll talk about that possibility, and the new world of disaggregation—or fragmentation—next time.

It’s no revelation to say the American newspaper industry is facing a crisis, even a matter of survival. Newspapers pre-date the Republic. They have been our foundation of news for more than 300 years. Neither radio nor television ever succeeded in replacing newspapers as our main source of news.

Even today, with the viral growth of the Internet, newspapers remain the foundation, albeit an increasingly shaky one, of news here, but it’s undeniable that we’re witnessing the end of an era. The numbers are quite clear. In 1940, when the population of the United States was 150 million, American newspapers sold 41 million copies a day. By 1945, 48 million copies were sold every day. The growth in circulation continued, although at a slower pace, until 1984, when it peaked at 63 million. By then, U.S. population had grown to 236 million. http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/visualizations/total-us-newspaper-circulation-194 Newspapers were still profitable, very profitable in many instances, but newspaper owners were becoming aware that circulation wasn’t keeping pace with the population growth.

The trend changed in 1984. By 1994, daily circulation was down to 59 million. Ten years later, it was 54.5 million. Between 1994 and 2007, daily paid circulation declined by nine million copies. (U.S. Census Bureau,Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2010, Table 1099. Daily and Sunday Newspapers—Number and Circulation, Total:1991 to 2008 and by State, 2008) The number of daily newspapers dropped from 1,548 to 1,422. The decline continues.

What, if anything, is going to take the place of news on paper in America? The most obvious answer is the Internet, but that begs the question where will Internet news come from? Behind most of the “free” news websites are newspapers. They supply the wherewithal to gather and publish what we read, whether we get it on paper or on a computer screen. Newspapers are still footing most of the bill. Secondary websites that feature news often are getting it by rewriting material they’ve cadged from newspaper sites or from the Associated Press, which is still fundamentally a creature supported by newspapers.

Televised news, now leaner than ever,  would be helpless without newspapers offering up a menu of stories for local stations to browse through to decide what to cover. National Public Radio makes a valiant effort to cover Washington, America and the world, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it justice, especially when the average news item is two or three minutes long and news reports are only two hours in the morning, and another two in the evening

Change is always painful. Those of us who devoted our professional lives and made our living at newspapers lament the passing of the old order. But there’s no use in crying over spilt milk or trying to figure out how to turn the tide. Some of the proposed solutions, such as government- subsidized news gathering and publishing in one form or another, promise to create more problems than they would solve. No matter how well insulated news organizations would supposedly be, inevitably politicians would claim the right to look over the shoulders of reporters and editors as they decide what to publish and what not to. Who pays the piper calls the tune. It’s just that simple.

None of the proposals—whether for micropayments, altruistic angels purchasing failing newspapers, government subsidies, or any variation or combination of them—holds out a remote promise of being able to generate the amount of income needed to support the level of journalistic enterprise we have had and continue to need in order to provide our citizens with the information they require to sustain democracy in America. We are surely all too aware that there are plenty of voices, and more than adequate resources to fund them, that are ready to invent, or distort, news to help shape the future in ways that we will find grotesque.

There are, however, some promising efforts being made to continue the finest traditions of American journalism. A number of organizations involved with investigative reporting have formed a consortium to further their shared goal of protecting the public interest from government, corporate and other special interests.  Where will the money come from to support these efforts? Will it be enough to take up the slack as newspapers fade away.http://cpublici.wordpress.com/

A great deal of attention is being paid to the promise of the Internet—to its speed, to its ubiquity. Anyone, supposedly, can now be a reporter. Anyone, like me, with a computer, a little money, opinions to air and a little (or a lot) of ego can go online, set up a soapbox and start preaching. Whether or not we get heard is another matter. In fact, the profusion of news and opinions creates a problem.

Is more necessarily better? How can we choose what to read? With so much available, how will we know where to look and what to look for? Go to look for something on Google and you could wind up with more than a million choices. With all this “information” instantly available, how are we going to judge its accuracy? How will we know what to believe and trust and what to be skeptical about? How will the truth catch up with the viral spread of a lie? And how long will it be before fat corporations muscle their way in to dominate this new medium and drown out other voices?

These are the kinds of questions I want to bring up for discussion here in the coming weeks and months. Won’t you join in?