Do newspapers have different standards for their print and online versions? The New York Times’s Public Editor has a discussion in this week’s column of a story that ran on the Times’s Internet site but not in the print edition. The basic issue, without summarizing the details, is that a Times web reporter, in trying to add a different perspective on a jazz musician who had just died, wrote a piece that might not have passed muster in the print edition. The piece was factually correct but painted an apparently less than complete picture of the subject and raised some other issues as well.

In the near future anyway, we may see more rather than fewer examples of this kind of incident. The Internet has a different culture than print news. By its very nature, because of technology among other things, the Internet has a greater sense of immediacy with a premium placed on getting it on the web now, rather than later. Newspapers obviously are also interested in scoops and getting a story first, or at least keeping pace with the opposition, but with the Internet all of that is accentuated because the technology has eliminated virtually all barriers to access and time constraints.  Anyone can get information or opinion or misinformation or disinformation on immediately. Newspapers, in contrast, have a number of checkpoints that have to be passed to publish something. Obviously, errors do get printed in newspapers, but despite what some people think, that’s almost always unintentional.

For better or worse, on the Internet nothing and no one stands between writer and reader; the reader has no way of knowing what standards the writer holds himself to in presenting whatever it is, how careful and thorough he or she is in gathering information or what the writer’s agenda may be.

It took a long time for newspapers to develop the prevailing ethics and standards of the profession, and it isn’t at all clear that as we make the transition from print to web that the new practitioners of journalism will adopt the same code—or any code. It would be comforting to know that they will abide by the same or even superior rules, but that isn’t a given.

So, when it comes to the Internet, caveat emptor.

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?