By Carl HoweThere was much strurm and drang yesterday in the blogosphere about a rumor that the San Francisco Chronicle is in trouble, based largely on a posting by Tim O'Reilly on Friday. And after extrapolating the death of all print newspapers from that rumor, we have everyone from Dave Winer saying we have to reform journalism schools to teach blogging skills to Michael Arrington saying that journalists should stop worrying about whether printed statements are right or not, and rely on commenters to do their fact-checking.
Judging by the blogosphere's reaction, I'm really happy that Web content is free; at the moment, I feel that it is worth every penny I am paying for it. My reason: people are confusing the business of publishing newspapers with the discipline and art of journalism. It's kind of like saying that because symphony orchestras struggle for subscriptions, we need to stop sending musicians to conservatories and start hiring groups of street musicians. While it may appeal to fans of street musicians (of which I am one), I doubt it will do much for the advancement of classical music.
Yes, traditional newspapers are struggling. There's too much supply and not enough demand in many markets, and that's part of a larger cycle of media expansion and contraction, as I've written before. But to say all newspapers are going to be out of business in the next 10 or 20 years is just silly. Like it or not, communities will need simple ways to distribute basic news and advertising. Yes, newspapers that don't have a clear dominant position in a market may die, but there will always be one newspaper. Why? Because your local car dealer and dry cleaner need a place to put their ads. Because the city council needs a way to distribute its proceedings that provably does not discriminate against low-income citizens that don't have computers. And because ordinary people like to read the sports news about the local teams. And despite the world-wide reach of online media, that very world-wide reach dilutes the value of online to those constituents.
There's an easy way to think about how dead the newspaper business is. Let's assume that both major newspapers in Boston, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, cease paper publication tomorrow and go entirely online. How long do you think Boston would not have a printed newspaper? I believe it would last somewhere between two and four weeks, the time necessary for a new entrant to arrange printing and distribution. The printed ad revenue, while seeming paltry to some, is still millions of dollars a year. That's just too attractive a revenue stream to turn down. I wouldn't guarantee the newspaper would be in English -- Spanish and Chinese newspapers seem to thriving -- but there would be a newspaper.
So assuming we have a newspaper, do we need journalism? With all due respect to Michael Arrington, I think we still do. For while the blogosphere is wonderfully rich and interesting, the signal to noise ratio isn't nearly as high as your average newspaper. And bloggers aren't necessarily invested in the mission of journalism, which is relentlessly seeking the truth and reporting it. One of the great things about the journalistic tradition is that a reporter has to convince at least one other person -- his or her editor -- that the story they wrote is true before it gets published. It's not much, but it is one person more than citizen journalists have to convince. In a world where we all struggle with the tyranny of too much media, that raises its credibility immensely. Journalism is what makes the newspaper worth a dollar a day instead of being free.
So don't despair about the rise and fall of newspapers. Markets are good at finding out what people want and what they don't. But good journalism will continue to be valuable both online and in print. The fact that newspaper bathwaters are getting a little shallow doesn't mean we should throw baby journalism out with it.