Seattle’s 43rd Legislative District Democrats hosted an interesting panel discussion last night about the imminent demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which is due to close next month if no buyer steps forward. Panelists included the managing editor of the P-I, editors from the paper’s print rivals, the Seattle Times and alt-weekly The Stranger, a city councilman, and the chair of an organization trying to preserve Seattle’s status as a two-paper town.
As I listened to the panelists I was thinking about the writings of Clay Shirky, and about two ways in which the web has fundamentally undercut print journalism:
- Craigslist has destroyed the financial foundation of the daily newspaper, by taking away the main source of advertising dollars: Classified ads. Nobody starts a job search these days by cracking open the local paper and skimming the want ads, and every year more people turn to the internet when shopping for cars, real estate and other goods that used to dominate print advertising.
- Print newspapers require editors and fact-checkers to maintain the quality of their product; the printed page necessarily limits what gets published, and gatekeepers are required to filter out dreck and errata. The web allows anyone to publish anything, and makes no up-front effort to screen out nonsense; instead, it relies on an army of volunteers to find quality articles after the fact. People like Jason Kottke are the 21st century’s newspaper editors, trolling the web and linking to interesting or “newsworthy” stories, and the web makes that job both easier and less financially rewarding.
So the question isn’t really whether Seattle will become a one-paper town: It is, as the panelists agreed, what will happen when Seattle (and most other cities) become zero-paper towns within the next decade. The panel’s concern was that in-depth local reporting of, say, political corruption or city schools — stories that required months of legwork — would be lost; the web is ruthlessly efficient at wide-and-shallow reporting, on everything from sports scores to presidential campaigns, but no one has figured out how to make narrow-and-deep investigative journalism profitable in a post-newspaper world.
I think the answer, which probably won’t please the professional journalists on yesterday’s panel, is that we need to start making reducing the effort required to expose corruption or research the performance of city schools — that it’s time to bring tools like the Freedom of Information Act up to date, such that any information subject to a FOIA request is already online and available to armchair journalists. Publicly traded companies should be required to keep “live” financial reports online, instead of offering mere quarterly reports to under-informed investors — and a scam like Bernie Madoff’s should be impossible to pull off because everyone can see what he’s doing.
This is, unfortunately, not the best news for today’s professional journalists: The majority of them will be forced to find paying work in some other field. The market is unwilling to pay professionals for work that a swarm of amateurs will perform for free, whether it’s an opinions-page article on the city council meeting or an interview with the coach of the Seahawks — so it becomes a question of what amateurs aren’t doing for free, and how we can allow the amateurs to do those things cheaply and effectively.
The panel’s suggestion, in fits and starts, was to find ways for the public to fund investigative journalism as a public good — but I think that approach is a dead-end, and indeed one of the panelists was vocal about the dangers of allowing public officials to fund investigations of public corruption. It’s possible to imagine a PBS-like entity which performs the in-depth journalism functions of a city newspaper, but it’s also easy to imagine the conflicts of interest that would arise.
I’m also not thrilled with the right-wing Seattle Times being the only paper in town, but unless I come up with several hundred million dollars in the next thirty days, I don’t see how that’s going to be avoided. If I’m right, though, it’ll only be that way for a few more years.