We don’t need newspapers, we need news

Arguing that newspapers are dead makes about as much sense as arguing that rotary dial telephones are dead: It’s pointless.

Arguing that newspapers are dead makes about as much sense as arguing that rotary dial telephones are dead: It’s pointless.

Just as the delivery of human conversation has morphed from the rotary to the push-button to the iPhone, so too the delivery of information has changed and will continue to do so. Newspapers on paper, as Michael Kinsley wrote in Time Canada, “are on the way out.”

But what newspapers do, better than any other medium, is deliver information in an unbeatable, retrievable, storable form. It is possible to go back over a telecast to catch something that was missed the first time around. It is possible to store a CD of information in a secure location. But, as with all electronic storage, will we be able to read it or see it a hundred years from now? For proof of what can happen when technological advancement overtakes the human need to file, store, retrieve and keep stuff — consider the floppy disc.

One of the arguments used to declare newspapers dead and buried is that Internet users won’t pay for news. That would be relevant logic if those of us who are daily newspaper readers pay for news now. We don’t. We pay for the delivery system, not what it contains. Advertisers pay for the content and all the news and views surrounding their commercial blandishments. They will go where the people are and will pay for the privilege.

In the words of Clay Shirky, an expert on new technologies and their social and economic effects: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

Yet there is no model for what might be called the “new” journalism. So far, there are no boundaries or recognized standards to replace the experienced editor dealing with the professional reporter. A newspaper reader today has some assurances that what he is reading is clearly labeled opinion or verifiable fact. There are names on the masthead, names on the stories, avenues for counter-argument or complaints. Newspapers, as concrete “things” have reputations to uphold and to live up to. Nobody, for example, believes the National Enquirer is a source for responsible political or economic journalism. By the same token, nobody believes the New York Times would print as fact the existence of vampires or centaurs born to women with a disturbing love of horses.

This is what the Internet cannot yet do: deliver reputable journalism on its own. That doesn’t mean it won’t, just that there is, as yet, no method to replicate the trust built up over the centuries by the existence of mass market, responsible newspapers.

As Shirky argues in Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkable (available online, of course) the old model is broken and technology has yet to deliver the new one. “This is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

That we are in a revolution of mass media is obvious. What the production of news — and its handmaiden, journalism — will look like when the dust settles is unknowable. Who could have predicted The Story of O when Gutenberg merely wanted to mass produce the Bible?

What is masquerading today as the fair and open exchange of ideas and opinions on the Internet is little more than the modern equivalent of neighbours screaming at each other across the backyard fence. Anonymity encourages polemics and flaming discourages real discourse. When nobody’s listening, is anyone talking?

It took years for Canada’s newspapers to grow from their colonial birth as propaganda organs for political parties into the mass market publications that exist today.

It will take an equal measure for what passes as online commentary to achieve the state of trust necessary to deliver the kind of journalism that will adequately replace respected newspapers.

If the future of newspapers is to be what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “The Daily Me” then let every broadsheet, tabloid, advertiser and weekly die a quick and unlamented death. Solipsism is unattractive in any guise and the kind of self-selection that dominates online searches gives rise to the narrowing of intellectual discourse.

Commentary that undermines well-established views and opinions makes the self-satisfied of every political stripe uncomfortable. Both Liberals and Conservatives “want news that makes them feel good,” Kristof told CBC Radio.

Yet if the future of newspapers is to continue to offer readers the unintended consequences of encountering what Kristof says is “news we don’t want to hear,” then all of us need to support that kind of new reality. One of the significant pleasures of flipping through the pages of a newspaper is the odd and quirky stories one encounters, along with the consequences of one’s eye being caught by a story too compelling to ignore, even if it does challenge some long-held belief.

Nobody can predict what the newspaper of the future will be like, but everyone interested in the kind of conversation that rises above the banal, the obvious and the self-selected has a stake in the answer.

Catherine Ford is a retired Calgary Herald columnist and part-time communications instructor at the University of Calgary. She also once briefly worked for the Red Deer Advocate.

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