Two weeks ago I participated in a forum on newspapers and the net put on by Britannica Blog. The tone was: are newspapers doomed and does anyone care? My part includes this:

At many a conference I have attended on new media and journalism, some old pro whose subsidy is fast disappearing will (mentally) place hands on hips and say about the Internet as a whole, “Well, that’s all very nice, very Web 2.0, but where’s the business model, people?“ As if that were some kind of contribution. I can’t tell you how disconcerting-and weird-I find some of these performances.

As Web journalist Scott Rosenberg observed: “Those guys have been doing that as long as the Web has been around — pointing this lack of prospective revenues out as if it were not their problem but someone else’s.” Last month it happened again. I was at a conference on the future of the Internet at Stanford and a big name journalist, well known to all the participants, took note of the economic crisis in newspaper journalism and pleaded with us: ““Society should be worried about this!”

Well, a free society should in fact be worried, but not about the fate of a particular industry, like “daily newspaper combine with department store ads and classifieds all locked up…” This was just a stopping point in the much longer and more important march across the centuries by the press itself, and certain forms of journalism it has learned to practice for public benefit. Clay Shirky said this in the Britannica forum:

What’s worth saving, as a critical function, is investigative journalism. We need someone, many someones, to do long, deep, boring research, for stories that may not even pan out. Without that, government at all levels will simply slide back into the nepotism and corruption of the 19th century… It’s time to get on with the essential task of trying everything we can think of to create effective new models of reporting, ones that take the existing capabilities of the Internet for granted.

A free press trying to inform the people and kindle public discussion, a notion that comes into the world in the first half of the eighteenth century, that is born at the same time as “public opinion” itself, to which it is intimately related, carried on by wave after wave of innovation and commercial expresssion, secured through political struggle by people who wanted to live in a country with a free press… we need to keep that idea strong and alive. And of course that means to embody it in institutions and practices widely adopted.

But we should also realize that these institutions are only adaptations to the media environment of the times. Hence: Media Shift. Lisa Williams had it exactly right, in her elegant essay at Idea Lab: journalism will survive the death of its institutions. The key lines come when she’s comparing what journalists are going through to what the tech industry—her world—met with from the late 1980s on…

When our central institutions blew up, people asked many of the same questions I hear among journalists today. Without these institutions, who will fund the mission? How will we attract the talent we need to make the transition? Just as journalism without newspapers seems inconceivable now, it seemed inconceivable to many then that innovation could continue without the might, resources, and sheer heft of the companies that formed the core of the high tech industry. Who would write the next operating system? Create the next generation of microprocessors? Today, journalists ask how democracy will fare in a country without a robust free press. Then, technologists asked how the United States could retain its leadership position without big, powerful computing companies.

When I started my blog, PressThink, it was behind a similar pry-things-apart observation, which I put into the Introduction (Sep. 2003). The press goes on, apart from the rising and falling of media forms:

We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of what technology they use. The people who will invent the next press in America—and who are doing it now online—continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached.

At the Britannica site I point out that rich and powerful people will always get their news. “Traders and emperors, ministers and spies will arrange for their news systems.” What’s at stake is the fate of our public systems, and the whole idea of having widely available news reports about the life and times of the nation, such that the general public will be informed of what’s going on, especially… the voters. I did my dissertation on the history of this idea. (“The Impossible Press” 1986, NYU.) Recently Eric Alterman used it to frame his extended report on the state of the newspaper (and the rise of the Net) for the New Yorker.

Britannica— the anti-Wikipedia—has its own crowd. In the comments someone using the name “Notebook M,” and obviously a writer, floated an idea that is probably more widespread than we at Idea Lab realize: the public doesn’t deserve to be informed because it won’t pay! In fact there is no “general” public; that’s a myth. There are elites who need information and masses who don’t, really. If you need it, you pay for it. If you don’t want to pay, you get what circulates around, what’s “out there” and pushed at you by forces you do not understand.

The masses don’t want or need news. They are not primary consumers. They consume in the secondary markets, like Leno and the water cooler. The future of news is in the primary market. What is one copy of the New York Times actually worth to Leno and his writers? A lot. What is one copy of the Wall Street Journal worth to Bill Gates? Same answer. Journalism needs to build a golden fence around itself, with a diamond-studded gate. Only those with hard cash and lots of it get to come in. Information is power and power will pay for information. News people need to become crowned members of an elite whose currency is written on notepads. Shut out the ham-and-eggers. They don’t want us. Stop wooing them like some pathetic love-sick stalker. Let them learn to live without information. Let those who buy it make fortunes off the backs of the don’t-know-it-alls, who now will have to settle for talking to each other in a great vacuum, after coming home from thankless jobs to tiny apartments and dinners of bland food. We shall lord over those who spurned us and settle in with the rich and knowledgeable. To hell with democracy. Viva the Info-tocracy!

The masses. This is one of the ideas “public opinion” replaced, but the two of them continue to battle for intellectual supremacy. “Let them learn to live without information.” This is a counter-revolutionary idea to the rise of the public sphere and the evolution of public news systems. Underneath the commom arguments about business models there may be arguments about who is and is not to be included in the need-to-know class.

What was revolutionary about public opinion in the first place: not the inside players but the general public needed to know how things worked, and, for example, who said what in Parliament. Public opinion could not be avoided; therefore it had to be informed. Don’t think that notion can’t be uninvented or beaten back. It can.

The press will survive the death of the newspaper and continue its arc across the centuries if the public remains what James W. Carey called the god term of the press.

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