Why Newspapers Matter

moderator: David Thorburn, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Jerome Armstrong
author: Pablo J. Boczkowski, School of Communication, Northwestern University
author: Dante Chinni, The Huffington Post
published: Feb. 21, 2011,   recorded: October 2005,   views: 6695

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In this third and final panel, moderator David Thorburn makes an impassioned bid to refocus attention on the unique role newspapers play in society, and to cast a more skeptical eye on the merits of cyberjournalism. Newspapers organize the world on a daily basis, “create a universe that is in some sense more fundamentally unified and coherent than the atomistic universe” of the Web, and serve as “independent political observers that can stand up against and defy the demands of government.” To Thorburn, the loss of this institution would deal a serious blow to society. Can emerging digital forms of news-gathering and communications hope to offer “the kind of political and moral independence” of traditional newspapers?

Jerome Armstrong takes issue with Thorburn. As an early grassroots internet organizer, he “saw a lack of progressive voices in the mainstream media outlets.” Newspapers did not cover the world he was interested in, so he “turned to the blogosphere.” This is a new mechanism for the mass media: individuals pass on information or a message via the internet to much larger groups. Speaking directly to the continued relevancy of newspapers, Armstrong notes that blogs offer readers a chance to connect with like-minded folks, and wonders whether the communities available online are “offering something newspapers haven’t offered.”

Pablo Boczkowski has hard data from his studies of Argentine print and digital journalism to suggest that “newspapers matter less because they have increasingly turned hard news into a commodity. They are losing their power to set the agenda.” Since 2001, and the advent of the internet as a news source, Boczkowski has detailed the increased homogeneity of stories in Argentina’s top newspapers. As editors monitor the competition online, especially breaking news, the same stories about politics, economics and foreign affairs show up in the pages of the following day’s newspapers. And as websites that feed a steady stream of entertainment, disaster and sports news demonstrate their popularity by click traffic, newspapers increasingly follow their lead. There’s now a “dense web of shared content” among online and print media, which may ultimately “decrease newspapers’ ability to contribute to a diverse public sphere.”

The best-case scenario for newspaper readership is grim indeed, says Dante Chinni, a slow and steady 1% decline year after year. And with more people reading news online, the income from classified ads must grow enormously-- an unlikely prospect. But while Chinni can’t identify a viable economic model to ensure the existence of newspapers, he makes a strong case for newspapers’ continued survival: at the local and national level, “they’re the place with the most bodies, the most reporters on the street. They’ve got expertise and know what they’re talking about.” Blogs can’t break large stories, but feed off news that’s already out there. Journalists have unique access, and “in spite of bias grumblings, lovable mainstream journalists try to get the story straight.” And because the news environment has become so complicated, we need “somebody to make sense of it,” more than ever.

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