Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I can't believe the Boston Globe is staying open

because now I not only have to change the titles of two recent blogposts, but I have to rail against the lameness of going through all this work to keep something open based purely on its nostalgia factor.

The announcement of the Globe's continued, if tenuous, existence came after parties on each side of the dispute--New York Times, Inc., the conglomerate that owns the paper, on one side; union representatives on the other--offered up a series of hefty concessions. It seems likely, in fact, that the entire hullaballoo over the potential closure of New England's largest paper was intended to generate exactly the kind of public sentiment it garnered: Outrage, disbelief, incredulity and the stubborn insistence that a community isn't a community without a newspaper to bind it.

Nostalgia only takes an argument--or a money pit, even when it's black, white, and read all over--so far. Eventually you come up against some cold, hard truths: That newspapers aren't economically viable, and haven't been for years; that whatever statistics people may pull out, people just don't read newspapers anymore; and that even with the decrease in newspaper readership, we still have by most accounts a better informed and more civically engaged public than we've ever seen.

It's hard to see this, of course, if you depend on traditional models of "informed" and "civically engaged." Today's citizen is more likely to comment on a news story or publish a blogpost than to vote. Today's citizen is more likely to sign an online petition via Facebook or MySpace than to attend a rally. Today's citizen is more likely to post a video to YouTube than to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. These actions may not seem like "civic engagement" to the old-school journalist (cf. Russell Crowe in State of Play), but these activities are leading to a real shift in how and when the elites--corporations, school boards, government officials, and so on--both can and choose to listen to the people.

"Society doesn't need newspapers," says Clay Shirky. "What we need is journalism." Okay, sure, the Boston Globe will stick around, at least for now. But media moguls, analysts, and the general public need to stop asking what needs to happen to make newspapers viable. That's no longer a relevant question. The new question is: What journalistic models can replace the traditional newspaper model, and what effects will this have on the public? This is a question that's already being answered, if the so-called "media experts" would just put down their end-is-nigh megaphones and listen to what's going on around them.

1 comment:

Andrew W said...

The coda to Shirky's argument, and a tweak to yours, is that what we need isn't's new newspapers. Newspapers are failing because they're heavily invested in an old business structure that no longer works. But that doesn't mean a new business model--still made up of reporters, editors, and paper--can't thrive.

The Metro is a good example. It's a free daily, it turns a profit, and if you add up all the city editions, it's the world's third-biggest newspaper. It's a newspaper with a new business model, and it's doing very well.

Every newspaper collapse--and there will be more--is unique. In the Globe's case, the New York Times Co. just plain butchered the whole process. As soon as the Times bought the Globe, the Globe lost all flexibility to adjust to new business demands. Hopefully the events of the last week will force some changes within the more traditional-minded papers.


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