A few weeks ago, Michael Kinsley brought blunt sanity to the dreamy talk about charging for news online in a New York Times op-ed. Today in his Washington Post column, he does likewise for dangerous dreams of subsidies. So papers are dying, he says:
What should we do? How about nothing? Capitalism is a “perennial gale of creative destruction” (Joseph Schumpeter). Industries come and go. A newspaper industry that was a ward of the state or of high-minded foundations would be sadly compromised. And for what?
If your concern is grander — that if we don’t save traditional newspapers we will lose information vital to democracy — you are saying that people should get this information whether or not they want it. That’s an unattractive argument: shoving information down people’s throats in the name of democracy.
But this really isn’t a problem. As many have pointed out, more people are spending more time reading news and analysis than ever before. They’re just doing it online. For centuries people valued the content of newspapers enough to pay what it cost to produce them (either directly or by patronizing advertisers). We’re in a transition, destination uncertain. Arianna Huffington may wake up some morning to find The Washington Post gone forever and the nakedness of her ripoff exposed to the world. Or she may be producing all her own news long before then. Who knows? But there is no reason to suppose that when the dust has settled, people will have lost their appetite for serious news when the only fundamental change is that producing and delivering that news has become cheaper.
Maybe the newspaper of the future will be more or less like the one of the past, only not on paper. More likely it will be something more casual in tone, more opinionated, more reader-participatory. Or it will be a list of favorite Web sites rather than any single entity. Who knows? Who knows what mix of advertising and reader fees will support it? And who knows which, if any, of today’s newspaper companies will survive the transition?
But will there be a Baghdad bureau? Will there be resources to expose a future Watergate? Will you be able to get your news straight and not in an ideological fog of blogs? Yes, why not — if there are customers for these things. There used to be enough customers in each of half a dozen American cities to support networks of bureaus around the world. Now the customers can come from around the world as well.