“The lunatic suicide of the press”


UPDATE: We get email. Here’s the latest:

Please credit the source of Justin’s article, which is MusicalAmerica.com of which I am the editor.  I made the link to it free, so I’d appreciate your crediting us and putting a link in.
Susan Elliott

Since the post already had a link in it (it’s cleverly disguised as the word “link” at the bottom), and since many of you have already followed the… link… to MusicalAmerica.com, I’m feeling a bit redundant this morning, but for now, please enjoy the fine prose that follows, which comes to you thanks to all the fine folks at MusicalAmerica.com:

Pulitzer-winning classical music critic Justin Davidson on how newsroom managers are responding to declining audiences by mutilating the product…

After I left Newsday, where I worked as a critic from 1996 until I joined the staff of New York magazine last year, the paper virtually ceased coverage of classical music. In the most recent spasm of buyouts, it also sacrificed two movie critics, a visual arts critic, and a TV critic and cut loose the freelancer who wrote about dance. But to put that in context: In the past few years, Newsday also shuttered its foreign bureaus, closed the national desk, halved its Washington staff, pulled out of New York City, whittled down every other department and slashed its total number of pages.

…and on how blogs aren’t the answer:

An army of amateur bloggers can’t send reporters to war zones or spend months sifting through obscure records in search of government abuse. There are some forms of journalism that only professional journalists, backed by the resources of major news organizations can tackle. Abandoning those stories squanders the protections afforded by the First Amendment: Why would the government bother abridging the freedom of the press, when the press is doing such an efficient job of abridging itself?



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“The lunatic suicide of the press”

  1. Great article – guy nails it, especially regarding the blogs. Interestingly, it’s quite unclear where many of the Canadian political blogs will find their hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing triggers were the MSM to pull up stakes and keel over.

    I recall reading a piece the other day, in which online advertisers were still quite unwilling to go full-bore onto the web, either with blogs or with established, online newspaper sites. There seems to be an element of unproven ability, so far as advertisers are concerned, for those online ads to pull in not simply interested buyers, but interested buyers willing to plunk down some cash after spotting an ad. As I type this, my eye scans disinterestedly at the ads that clutter up this particular page, and I’ve gotta say, I understand their concern. Are your online advertisers getting bang for their buck? I have my doubts.

    But, bridge that gap, and online news gathering might just hit its stride. If Maclean’s or the Globe can get to a point where they can be 100 per cent digital, offer quality journalism at no (or a very minimal) cost and sustain a healthy advertising revenue…well, that’s now the dream, innit?

  2. Oops. Looks like all the ads on this page are Maclean’s or Rogers-related. Kinda furthers my point, though.

  3. Hey now, what about that ad for a reality show on CityTV at the top? Oh wait . . .

  4. “An army of amateur bloggers can’t send reporters to war zones”

    I am regular reader of the two Michaels, Totten and Yon and barely look at MSM coverage.

    Mr Davidson has some good points but I am hesitant to elevate journalists to some sort of priest-class that knows everything and the hoi polloi have to read whatever they write.

  5. @jwl: I haven’t read the article, only the blog post, but I don’t think the point is that journalists are “some sort of priest-class that knows everything”, but rather that, when you pay people — people of average competence, even — to spend time and effort to do research and produce reports (“articles”) then you get a higher quality product that what can be produced by amateurs with no funding. And, at some point, you can produce stuff that is literally in a different class of work, because of the increased time & effort.
    I think that’s a reasonable conclusion. I also think the MSM isn’t really producing in this manner, much, these days; there’s a lot more reliance on contrasting press releases and less on investigative journalism that tries to assess (& express) the credibility of the different voices.

  6. Two Hats gets what Justin Davidson’s trying to say: It’s not the “priest class” of journalism the Megapundits) who add value; it’s the often ignored working reporters who do. As for whether the MSM could produce more, Two Hats, I absolutely agree. But I’ve been a judge for the last few years for the Ontario Newspaper Awards (the Globe, Star and National Post don’t enter, so it’s essentially community papers under a certain circulation level) and the quality of the work being done, on those papers’ best days, is astounding. There’s a guy at the Hamilton Spectator named Steve Buist who is one of the most prolific, imaginative investigative reporters I’ve ever known about. I’ve never met the guy and I’m sure almost none of you have heard of him, but he’s worth about six of the priest-class Megapundits and I hope the Spec treats him well.

  7. The dream of going all digital, with the same content at low cost and decent ad revenue, is probably going to remain just a dream.

    Trust me, the best people the biz can hire have crunched the numbers every which way, and it just doesn’t work. In a nutshell: For the same number of eyeballs, online ads bring in about 10 to 15 percent of the revenue that a print at does. But shutting down the whole print version and going digital only would cut costs by about 35 percent.

    I won’t complete the calculation for you, but the point is pretty clear. The ad-based model simply isn’t going to save the business… all of this cost-cutting is simply a way of buying time until someone figures out a different revenue stream.

    I have my own views on what that should be (I think some sort of subscription model is the only option), but in the meantime, it’s just a lot of ragging the puck.

  8. I think the difference between a TV critic and a foreign journalist is quite important however. Whether someone watches the Simpsons for the Vancouver Sun or the Montreal Gazette, it is the same TV show. I can see a bit of an economy of scale here.

    But when it comes to having people in foreign bureaus, the case is entirely different. I know Jonathon Manthorpe of the Sun (and Gwynne Dyer of the Canwest Blacklist) have argued for years that Canada needs more foreign correspondents. Both make the argument that people WANT this sort of news, but cannot get it, so they are not buying papers. I know that when I lived in Vancouver, I used to look forward to Manthorpe’s monday page of dispatches, because he gave news that you could not get anywhere else in Canada.

  9. Two Hats, Paul

    I get twitchy when I read something about how only ‘professional journalists’ can cover certain topics. As far as I am concerned, all it takes to be a ‘journalist’ is the ability to write a coherent sentence.

    I agree that some reporters add value to newspapers, no question. I, too, would like much more investigating reporting and less hot/not rubbish. However, I have this impression that Canadian journalists are too comfortable and publishers need to shake up their staff a bit, a little competition is a good thing.

  10. jwl – no question Canadian publications are complacent and need to be shaken up. But you missed an important ingredient to be an effective journalist: a paycheque.
    I agree that anybody capable of writing a coherent sentence can be a journalist at any given time, on a particular topic that they know something about. But to be a consistent producer of useful information, somebody’s got to be paying your rent. That’s the point: not that professionals are inherently smarter, but that they have the financial backing to do the hard work.
    I also agree with Potter that the future is going to have to be greater emphasis on subscription revenue and less emphasis on advertising. But that implies a huge restructuring of the business, and it’s going to be painful. (So painful that, so far, nobody can bring themselves to actually start the transformation.) But the longer we wait, the more of our target market gets used to the idea that information is free, and that’s a bit of a problem.

  11. I agree with Wells’ point about who’s adding value in the MSM: it’s mostly the reporters, not the columnists. But even then, much of the time the reporters have so little expertise in the topic they’re covering that they don’t know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which is why the blogs have a field day fisking them, especially in areas that require some specific subject knowledge – like defence, or science writing.

    I’d suggest the media needs to hire fewer “journalists,” and more “specialists.” Pay the experts to cover their area of expertise, instead of paying a generalist with a J-school degree to mangle a story so badly that the blogs eat them alive.

    My area of interest is the Canadian Forces, and I can tell you unequivocally that it would be far easier and more cost-effective to teach a defence expert how to craft a front-page story or a television news piece than it would be to teach a journalist about the intricacies of the defence world. That approach would certainly produce more accurate reporting than what we get now. You could even do it on a freelance or part-time basis instead of hiring someone full-time.

    My two cents.

  12. Hmm, how did the editor know that you had written about this piece? Traffic was up? Traffic to that story, from your blog? Perhaps from people who had been redirected via the link? To the story about media-interconnectivity?

    Irony aboundeth.

  13. Seriously, though, how is laying off these critics different than what has happened in literature?

    For some time now, all book reviews have been essentially unpaid; gone, gone are the days when someone like Orwell could scrape by doing 3-5 book reviews a week. Why would an editor pay good money to an independent reviewer when he can hire an academic who will work for a credit on his CV?

    The result, naturally enough, has been to suck the energy out of our literary reviews, since amateurs will always review according to their narrow point of view. But does the public care? On the contrary, they can’t remember a time when book reviews were worth reading. No reason why that should happen to all the arts; or to any other field of journalism. There is no limit to how thin the gruel may get on which the blogs of our grandchildren may subsist. Alas!

  14. Sorry – “No reason why that shouldN’T happen to all the arts.”

  15. I agree that a pay cheque is a pre-requisite for good investigative journalism, but it doesn’t have to come from a corporation. jwl points to the two Michaels, Yon and Totten, as examples. They produce excellent work on their blogs (and now in print in Yon’s case) with the financial support of readers, average Joes who hit the PayPal button to help send them back to Iraq or Kosovo or Afghanistan.

  16. Funny about Totten and Yon. When I see certain conservative blogs promote those two, I automatically tune out. They could be writing the most immediate, hard-hitting and accurate news stories (they aren’t), and once I see a particular stripe of political bloggers have adopted them as crusading heroes, again, I have to mentally gird myself to read their work.

    This, of course, happens not infrequently to MSM columnists and reporters, many of whom are also adopted by various folks of various persuasion. But with fringe writers like Yon or Totten, who are essentially accountable to no one, and whose backers may be all-too invisible, I find my level of trust in bloggers remains extremely low (and this is despite the Jayson Blair-types in the MSM, because let’s face it, he was caught and dealt with, something I’m not sure would or even could happen with blogging).

  17. I don’t read Totten regularly but I am somewhat familiar with his stuff. Has he ever broken an actual story about the middle east? (And is “breaking” a “story” the terms you industry insiders use? Hopefully you get the idea). He’s definitely different from many bloggers because he actually goes to the middle east and he does talk to people there. you can argue about the value of his experiences there, but can it be considered “hard news” (again with the terms I might not be using correctly). In fact, Totten might be an argument that being able to write English and travel to a locale of interest might not be sufficient.

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