< Stopping the Press


Friday, February 20, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s been a lot of discussion on how to save newspapers, but substantially less on why. Of all the media out there, why is the newspaper deemed by so many, especially in the media, too important to die? We call on two journalists who have given this a lot of thought - Steve Coll, formerly managing editor of The Washington Post, now head of the New America Foundation think tank, and Matthew Yglesias, political blogger and fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Welcome to the show, both of you.

STEVE COLL: Thanks for having us.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Steve, why do you think it’s important that newspapers, particularly big legacy papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post¸ continue to survive?

STEVE COLL: I think there are four things that the big newsrooms have today that are likely to go away unless they're deliberately conserved. One is audiences of a global scale, 25 million or more in the case of The New York Times. Another is the independence that comes with scale, legal departments and deep pockets and an imperviousness to threat, particularly in these libel-shopping, globalized days. And the other thing they have is the ability to protect journalists from anything other than the perfection of their own work over a long period of time and to give them the language training and the area studies that the best of them will employ to do work that matters and work that lasts. And I think those careers which my generation was very fortunate to enjoy, those careers are going to be very difficult to replicate in the coming forms of journalism that I think we can already see around us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Matt, what do you think of the premise that big newsrooms are crucial for the development of journalists and for the production of important news?

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Well, I do think there’s no question that a lot of value is generated out of the current model, or the model that’s been in the past and has been fading. At the same time, we also have to ask not is there some value to the present model of that kind of big-city newspaper monopoly, but is there any real way to preserve the institutional setting in which that took place?

STEVE COLL: You know, you talk about – one talks about the kind of value of news gathering, of reporting that happens at these newspapers. But a newspaper is much more than just a venue for producing hard news stories. It’s a physical bundle of paper that bundles together stories of all different kinds – weather reports, sports coverage, arts, book reviews, movie reviews. And there’s a particular logic to assembling that kind of bundle, but it’s an economic logic that has to do with the economics of printing and distributing pieces of paper and it’s not logic that really makes sense in the present world. And I think we do need to look at what’s most valuable, what’s threatened, and find ways to bolster it. But we're probably not going to be able to succeed in doing that if we remain wedded to certain kinds of institutions that are products of a particular time and not very well suited to the economic and technological landscape that’s emerging.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you suggest that hard news, local news coverage, investigative stories, are best supported in smaller, nonprofit units like the ProPublica newsroom, which is supported entirely by philanthropy. Why do you think these things will succeed where newspapers have failed?

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Well, this was specifically in the context of should we try to set up nonprofit newspapers. And what I was saying was that, you know, I think there’s a compelling case that this is something that philanthropists are going to need to step in to do. The question is, do you want to try to channel that into this dying model that isn't really working any more, or is it more important to find ways to fund new kinds of institutions? – and in particular, to identify exactly what it is that needs funding because some of the cutbacks that we're seeing in the newspaper industry are because there’s genuine redundancy and overlap. It’s just not true in the Internet age that every major city needs its own film critic. But local news gathering, it seems to me, is really in danger, and so there needs to be a focus on trying to find people and institutions that can specialize in that.

STEVE COLL: Yeah, I think that’s basically right. I don't think there’s any magic about the bundle that does crossword puzzles and foreign correspondents simultaneously. I don't think that that’s essential to preserve. But The New York Times today has a global audience in excess of 20 million, and it is extraordinarily influential. I'm just arguing to potential philanthropists that they might want to consider preserving the audience and the journalism to which it’s connected. And in doing that, you can't just throw out everything that the audience likes. So it may be that the audience is at The New York Times because they love the redundant movie reviews that they find there. You would want to be disciplined by the need to attract an audience.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: Well, you know, I think part of the issue, though, is that the audience is going away. I mean, there used to be a time when any large city would have several newspapers. Then a time came with, I think, the invention of television and radio that a lot of newspapers started collapsing, and we had the kind of one-newspaper model. And that let a newspaper in a city, and particularly the newspaper in the biggest city, acquire a sort of authoritativeness, and it made the press very powerful vis-a-vis other kinds of actors in politics and in the business world, which in some ways was good because it’s a check on other large powers. But the nature of the digital world and the nature of the Internet is just that you can't maintain that kind of hegemonic audience position, and I'm not really sure what the point would be in trying to do it. And a risk, if we move to a more philanthropic model, to a more nonprofit-based model, of course, is that you’re going to have less independence in viewpoint than you would in a commercial organization. People are going to be dependent in part on what their donors want to accomplish. And the only kind of cure for that that I can see is going to be a diversity of points of view, a contrast to the whole sort of single-newspaper model.

STEVE COLL: Yeah, but actually I think that the problem now is the obverse, which is that we have the diversity. What Matt says is absolutely right. It’s already happening. New forums, smaller groups, those devoted to journalism, those operating out of universities, those operating from advocacy groups and think tanks, all these things are already happening. Whether in the center of that, in addition, as part of the competitive mix, you would wish to preserve these legacy newsrooms, just as we make a national decision to preserve NPR in the midst of all of the broadcast media that we have in this country – what I'm searching for is a way, before it’s too late, to consider preserving these legacy newsrooms.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I just wonder, do either of you think that investigative journalism, local journalism, foreign journalism will really pass from the world if the newspapers pass? Newspapers have functioned under conditions where they had a lot less money than The Washington Post and The New York Times do now for 100 years. They've always done good work, and bad work.

STEVE COLL: They've done work of a different kind. There’s never been a model of news gathering and career formation in journalism such as the one that grew up between 1960 and 2005. It’s an accident of, you know, a lot of forces in the United States in particular. S yes, some foreign correspondence and some local reporting and some investigative reporting, most of which will have to be the product of philanthropy, will continue, but I would at least like to give voice to the idea that there is something that will be lost that will not be replicated in these other models.

MATTHEW YGLESIAS: You know, where I agree with Steve unquestionably is that even if we keep having coverage from abroad, coverage of national politics, it’s going to have a different kind of tone. It’s going to be animated by a different set of values. And so, to the extent that we appreciate the current tone and values, there will be a loss. I don't think that those values and that approach are necessarily all they're cracked up to be all the time and that a sort of more passionate, more freewheeling approach has some real benefits, but it does have some costs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay Matt, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Yglesias is a blogger and fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Steve, thank you too.

STEVE COLL: My pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Coll is president and CEO of the New America Foundation and a staff writer for The New Yorker.