Monday, May 11, 2009

Does democracy need well paid journalists with expense accounts to survive?

Lately, the argument that our nation's fledgling newspaper reporters have been making to justify their existence goes kind of like this: hey, we know that nobody is reading newspapers anymore except for old people and newspaper people, but without "professional journalists" like us, no one will bother sitting through boring legislative sessions, have the connections to expose insider malfeasance or fly off to exotic countries and tell you what's going on there. Without us j-school graduate pros (and our good salaries and expense accounts) Democracy Itself will fail.

Wow! It takes a lot of, uh, self confidence to feel that your day job is to hold up the pillars of democracy and that society is on the verge of collapse without your daily Jack Bauer-like heroics. The problem is, it's completely delusional.

Let's start with local government "problem". The truth is, there are lots of small local papers that do an excellent job of covering local politics as well as covering hyper local events like Community Board meetings that citywide papers won't touch (downtown Manhattan's "The Villager" comes to mind). Also, increasingly local bloggers are actually covering these "boring" public meetings in droves. In places with spottier coverage, it's hard to see how setting up a free webcam at these meetings wouldn't provide all the information any interested member of the community would need.

What about the claim that democracy needs insiders to expose government and corporate shenanigans? This is true, but the assumption that you have eat lunch at The Palm and the Four Seasons to be in the know is laughably dated. Wasn't it protoblogger Matt Drudge who broke and led the reporting on the biggest story of the last decade, the Monica Lewinsky scandal? He didn't even live anywhere near Washington, but got all the biggest scoops because he had the public's ear. And he did it all with a black and white, single page website, using basic HTML.

Finally, we have the almost Imperialist assumption that in order to know what's going on in far away lands, we must send an army of scribes overseas, armed with their Western ideals and j-school credentials. How would a Google News-style aggregator of local blogs from these countries be less informative? Might this even give us greater insight into the countries in question, this ability to hear unmediated voices from the inside?

Look, I feel the newspaper folks' pain. I used to make a little money writing and producing music that came out on vinyl. Now I still do it but everyone seems to download it for free. But one thing is definitely true: the threatened death of music never happened. If anything, there is so much music now that no one has time to digest most of it, let alone pay for it.

What ultimately changes in the digital revolution is not the public's ability to access information (it actually increases exponentially), just who gets paid for it.

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