Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chris Hedges, get a grip

OK, if the title of Chris Hedges' rant against newspapers' problems (The Internet Is No Substitute for the Dying Newspaper Industry) doesn't give you a huge hint where he's coming from, the lede of his story might:

The decline of newspapers is not about the replacement of the antiquated technology of news print with the lightning speed of the Internet. It does not signal an inevitable and salutary change. It is not a form of progress. The decline of newspapers is about the rise of the corporate state, the loss of civic and public responsibility on the part of much of our entrepreneurial class and the intellectual poverty of our post-literate world, a world where information is conveyed primarily through rapidly moving images rather than print.
Uh, get a grip.

Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, pulls out all the usual shibboleths:
  • Bloggers can't/don't do original reporting
    • They also fail to admit errors
    • They also easily interchange facts with opinions
  • The Internet is a hotbed of partisanship in which a media organization with "traditional" values (my quote, not his) would have difficulty surviving because "those who rely on the Internet gravitate to sites that reinforce their beliefs." (his quote)
  • Newspapers are a public trust (but have been strangled by the corporados)
  • Sitting back and reading a paper for 45 minutes at a time makes you a better citizen of the world
When the traditional news organizations go belly up we will lose a vast well of expertise and information. Our democracy will suffer a body blow. Not that many will notice. The average time a reader of The New York Times spends with the printed paper is about 45 minutes. The average time a viewer spends on The New York Times Web site is about seven minutes. There is a difference between browsing and reading. And the Web is built for browsing rather than for reading. When there is a long piece on the Internet, most of us have to print it out to get through it.

Let's review, shall we:
  • Yes, we can agree on the third point, that newspapers have been strangled by some corporate decisions, failure to adapt, cluelessness to the point of criminality that has led to upending thousands of people's lives. Yet I also seem to remember it was a corporate decision to create a site like Bluffton Today, revitalizing a paper that was dying and giving the community a voice. It's a corporation, the Times, that has pioneered some of the best journalism not just online or in print, but across both. It's corporations that are trying some of the most significant experiments in reorganizing their newsrooms to respond to the technology and trying to become relevant to wider segments of their audience. (Think Atlanta and, more recently Tampa. Gannett, too, but I've noted why I consider Tampa and Atlanta more significant.) Sure, they had to be kicked bloody and beaten to the curb to do it, but they are trying.
    • And besides, if we accept Hedges' argument, then it seems to me it cuts toward supporting development of alternative media to augment and complement the papers that are being slowly eviscerated.
  • Yep, at this stage of the game the opinion blog sites outweigh sites instilled with "trad" media values and reporting. I suppose this site would fall in the latter, though I do report on stories from time to time, and I usually try not to spout opinions on things I have not studied or have intimate knowledge about. But Hedges makes some crucial mistakes:
    • He assumes no change. Yet if you look at the media landscape now compared with just three to five years ago, you've seen explosive growth in online community news sites (some actually run by journalists, imagine!) and the emergence of organizations devoted to filling some of the gaps. He even notes as much, pointing to Pro Publica, Slate and the site his article is on, Alternet, as small but promising ventures. Why does he assume others will not be created?
    • He makes the bald assertion that bloggers don't want to admit their mistakes. Excuse me? I see more blogs with parts of items clearly crossed out and updated, or with explanatory footnotes that something has been changed, than I see corrections in all the newspapers I read. After 30 years in newsrooms, I can safely say the resistance to running corrections was high, aptly summed up by the observation that this would be a great business if it weren't for the readers (who pointed such things out). And comments on those blogs often provide a much fuller picture of the nuances that sometimes have resulted in impenetrable "clarifications" in places like the Times and the AP. (Online, the clarifications are often not needed; they're right there in the comments.)
    • He assumes the public is dumb. Look, it's laughable alone to suggest it's a problem that somehow upstanding media will have to compete with all these slanted blogs and other opinion sites. I guess competition was fair when it was with the cross-town daily that basically shared the same values but it's not OK when you are going up against people who might actually want to beat the crap out of you (possibly literally). But to assume the public can't distinguish is just plain condescending. Did it ever occur to Hedges that maybe these other sites are attracting people who, for whatever reason, don't fully trust the Times or the local rag?
    • He assumes people don't want opinions with their facts. Yet, I'd propose that people do want opinions -- the opinions of those experienced in such matters as to what facts are more important. That's called reporting, not stenography. And yes, it is an opinion.
  • Most egregiously, however, Hedges equates reading a newspaper with being a better citizen of the world as opposed to browing many related sites.
    • With due respect to his time overseas, I feel better informed because I can do more than sit back and read the Times (or the distilled version in my local paper). I can now get different views of the same subject from a variety of skilled sources. So instead of just getting Hedges' opinion of what's important (or more likely, his tempered by his editors'), I can get multiple opinions.
    • Does this mean that Hedges' successors have to write clearer and tighter because I am giving them less time (though I may be spending that 45 minutes overall)? Sure does. Welcome to the real world.
In short, Hedges is guilty of many of the same things he accuses bloggers et al. of: Sloppy or nonexistent reporting, easily confounding fact and opinion, and creating a straw man to start with. No one is suggesting that in the short term the Internet will substitute for newspapers, but it will complement them in greater and greater fashion. If it eventually replaces them, there is no reason to believe alternate newsrooms won't be created that individually -- but more likely collectively -- will do the kind of journalism Hedges laments is dying.

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