Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, a fake news show that has acquired a huge following (a group among whom I include myself), is attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week. As a result, he had the chance to meet with members of the traditional press, a group of people who, according to the account of Dennis DiClaudio on Comedy Central's campaign-related web site, are huge fans.
The setting was a breakfast thrown by Comedy Central to which the network invited a set of prominent, mostly printed media journalists. At some point, one of those journalists asked Mr. Stewart how newspapers could "restore print journalism to its former place as the apex of political discourse."
Stewart's responded with the following:
The antidote is to push back. The antidote is to create filters" to remove the muck from the information fish tank, so we can clearly see what's truth and what's political spin. Take the ball away from the cable news networks and do what they're being paid to do. You're not on anyone's team. You're on our team, clearing our tanks.
It's an interesting thought, but I don't think that would be nearly enough. The problem for printed media is twofold.
The first problem affects all media, whether newspapers, magazines, TV News or Internet Media, and that is that modern technology is in the process of exponentially multiplying the number of places from which consumers can get news. People like Walter Cronkite existed at a time when there were only three or four channels on a typical TV set. In such a world, the handful of newspapers viable within any given city and the handful of networks with TV news hours were, for all intents and purposes, the kings of news media.
The Internet, and the spread of digital media production technology, has changed all that. It is now technically feasible, from both a distribution and a cost standpoint, to compete head to head with news from major networks. Though I can't say that all the news on the Internet is reliable, I could never say traditional media was all that reliable, either (an anecdote: on a trip back from Europe around 2002, I remember watching a Dallas-based news channel arguing that Israel couldn't share Jerusalem with the Palestinians because it would divide Israel in half, at which time they proceeded to show a map that placed Jerusalem near the coast and Tel Aviv, and not smack in the middle of the West Bank where it really is).
This has made life hard for news sources that built corporations scaled to serve a market composed of fewer competitors.
Competitive differentiation becomes important in markets with many options. FOX News decided to aim for a particular market niche, which is people who want their political news slanted along their own ideological predispositions (which in the case of FOX News, is a conservative slant). It's a profitable niche, and has turned Fox News into one of the biggest TV news channels in the United States.
Other news channels have aimed for the "variety show" and "entertainment" niche. This might have "cheapened" their brand from a pure news standpoint (I don't watch any TV-based news channel anymore), but on the other hand, it has enabled them to pull in viewers that have a lot more options with which to distract themselves.
Jon Stewart, in my opinion, is saying that printed news should aim for the rigorously honest niche. It's an appealing idea, though I'm not sure if it would be enough to slow the slow their inexorable slide in subscription revenues. How does printed media compete with colorful, singing and dancing images on a web site?
That, I think, is the second problem for printed media. I suggested while in London that newspapers need to aim to get up-to-the-minute news into the hands of people with nothing better to do than read newspapers. Users of mass transit are such a captive market, and technology might help to lubricate things considerably (e.g. digital kiosks and cheap eReaders might be a way to get around the usability problems associated with traditional newspapers, while hooking readers on the clarity of printed journalism).
Of course, in mass transit-averse America (which is less averse these days due to high oil prices, though that won't cause subways and buses to materialize overnight), there are fewer captive reader opportunities. This, I think, creates more opportunities in radio. When not listening to music in the car, I always listen to National Public Radio (NPR), mostly because it is the only channel at peak driving times of the day that isn't yammering on about nonsense I don't care about. NPR offers news (however slanted it may be), and it is popular because the rest of the media world thinks they have to be a clone of Howard Stern.
But, unless the New York Times wants to start a radio network, that isn't going to help them very much. Bottom line, I don't think there is room for as many traditional newspapers as currently exist in the United States. A handful might benefit from the Stewart prescription and might maintain a readership base through rigorous adherence to strong journalistic principles and honesty. They can't all, however, persist in a world where the latest news is a click away. More likely, most will shrink to local interest newspapers -- if they survive at all -- and that's a status that isn't going to be enough to justify existing size and scales.
In other words, I think the days when printed media occupied the "apex of political discourse" are long past. For good or ill, most will consume news content through television (a media with many limitations from a news standpoint) or some form of digital media, which is why I suggest traditional newspapers "digitize" themselves as rapidly as possible.