One can be forgiven for seeing a journalistic crisis around every corner. Television news has fallen into a condition composed of equal parts stupidity and cupidity. Radio is characterized by shrill anti-intellectualism. In print, the picture looks the worst: the Grey Ladyis in dire financial straits, the Tribune Company is busted, and advertising revenues are collapsing. The internet leaves only rubble and blogs in its wake. In each medium, news, views, and marketing strategies are increasingly difficult to disentangle. Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg seem to be the only people capable of making reliable money. David Swensen has even proposed turning newspapers into endowed non-profit organizations.

Yet the spectre of “death” haunts only a few corners of the profession. Sports journalism has changed format, but lives and even thrives on the web; the Op-Ed maintains its high profile despite having lost some of its cerebral heft. Indeed, the preference-driven echo chamber that is the internet has done a lot for commentary that wears its agenda on its sleeve. Thus, while I do not want to dull the collective sense of alarm, I hope to bring a scattershot concern into focus by examining which specific forms of journalism are dying, and what consequences their deaths might have for the profession writ large. To this end, I have chosen to inspect two journalistic stalwarts, one institutional and one rhetorical: local newspapers and the long-form essay.

Local newspapers are dying from a combination of diminishing journalistic standards and the inscrutable currents of consumer taste. The first affliction derives from the failure of journalism schools to reproduce capable professionals while the second adheres to the obstinate rules of supply and demand. On this first count, formal journalism education remains a tightly held guild with self-regulating norms and a rapidly cohering body of expectations about the competences and skills desirable in a graduate. Thus, assuming that human intelligence is at least constant over time, we can turn to the values propagated by these institutions for some clue as to why they obstinately churn out inferior products.

Perhaps technological fetishism is to blame. Perhaps an academic culture obsessed with professionalizing students has pushed out the basics of reading, writing, and reporting, which together make for the foundations of good journalism. Perhaps, the rise of the rat-race culture characteristic of academic tenure proceedings has permeated pre-professional education and brought its inherent pathologies along: reduced attention to teaching, the mindless reproduction of “research,” the stifling of mould-breaking ideas. Perhaps prospective journalists find the value added by a degree in the profession insufficient to dissuade them from avenues to publication with lower barriers to entry. The list of possible causes goes on ad nauseum.

Yet to focus on these sundry sources is to avoid the problem. While it is clearly unfair to expect each graduate of a journalism school, even of a distinguished journalism school, to possess the incisive eye and expressive capacity of H. L. Mencken, it is not too much to ask that he or she is a fluent writer of English drilled in the basic elements of style. A touch of critical thought in the recent alumnus seems to have shifted from the status of a prerequisite to the peripheral character of a luxury. Journalists are getting worse and their product – community reporting – is of a poorer quality than in the past. Unsurprisingly, consumers have responded. Hence, we ought not to weep, along with David Simon, for the loss of some glorious, content-rich medium. Newspaper reportage died a long time ago. Like an Alzheimer’s-ridden patient, the substance of its character ebbed away well before the body itself finally atrophied and collapsed.

However, this guild-level failure has some nasty knock-on effects that are becoming obvious. Today’s graduates face growing shortages in the journalistic job market. This makes print reporting a less-attractive career for tomorrow’s graduate. A personnel crisis can only exacerbate the quality deficit in local newspapers, and will further reduce the ranks of candidates for national papers – meaning that the upper echelons of print will eventually feel the pinch of an eroding talent pool. Moreover, our concern should expand beyond “journalism” to include what losing a local newspaper means for the community it calls home.

The death of community reporting is as much a political problem as it is a professional crisis. As local newspapers collapse, some readers have turned to national and regional papers that overlook local matters. Others have turned to blogs of various types. There, “open source” has replaced professional ethics – making both the facts and the opinions expressed subject to the lowest common denominator. It takes little imagination to understand that a public versed only in its own prejudices cannot perform the duties of reasonable citizens.

Having opened the subject of blogs, let us turn our attention to the long-form essay. The conventional wisdom holds that the essay is locked in a zero-sum contest with the ever-expanding “blogosphere.” The Atlantic drew upon this underlying assumption for its November 2008 edition, the cover of which asked “Will the Internet Kill Writing?” Andrew Sullivan endeavoured to answer that question in the form of a long-form essay on why he blogs. Sullivan does an able job of defending his participation in the phenomenon, and in detailing its strengths and weaknesses. Yet his argument fails to strike at the heart of things. He suggests that the savagery of blog readers compensates for the loss editorial oversight, and that the hyperlink to sources does more to add depth to an article than any citation. In all of these forms, he declares that “blogging found its own answer to the defensive counterblast from the journalistic establishment.”

Yet we should not be enamoured of Sullivan’s vision of a blog. The structural imperative behind blogging – immediacy – abhors the inefficiency of reflection and so inclines the writing toward superficiality and frivolity. The power of blog writing is neither intellectual nor rhetorical, but merely punctual. In the best hands, its power can even be emotional. Sullivan writes as much when he asserts that, as a blogger, “You end up writing about yourself since you are a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world.” Herein we find the problem: what Sullivan regards as the power of proximity to real humanity becomes a kind of romanticism. The objective universe becomes channelled through the subjective consciousness, not toward the end of understanding the world, but rather as way of bringing reality to heel.

Why should we worry so much about the triumph of the subjective consciousness? After all, Sullivan says, blogging is not so new a form. And he is correct. For while Sullivan elevates Montaigne as the quintessential pre-internet blogger, he could have turned to the first controversialist-cum-conversationalist of all: Socrates. My point becomes clearer when we understand why Sullivan sees blogging as such a humane exercise. He writes that the relation between blogger and reader is so intimate, that “It renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way.” Sullivan goes on: “The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”

We might grant that the scale of writing about oneself in the pursuit of friendship has changed, but this may be less important than the act of friend-seeking itself. Like the blogger, Socrates strove to enlighten in the now, to engage his fellowmen in the immediate concerns of the day. Moreover, like Sullivan, he did so in a manner that led to a kind of friendship – though Socrates didn’t do nearly as much talking about himself. Obviously, Socrates alienated more than his fair share of Athenians (hence the hemlock). But his attempt to bring out the reasonableness of each citizen inspired the philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing on the place of individuals in “dark times,” to assert that Socrates “tried to make friends out of Athens’ citizenry.”

The best example of this “friendship,” and its limitations, appears not in Socrates’s trial, but in his encounters with Thrasymachus and Glaucon. After a protracted debate, Socrates makes Thrasymachus blush and the two ultimately “become friends.” Yet Socrates is never able to overcome fully the opening assertion by Thrasymachus that might makes right, that the strong can do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. Despite his arguments, and Thrasymachus’s silence, Glaucon rejects to the end Socrates’s assertion that higher standards than power anchor authority. On this point, despite his reasonableness and his amicability, Socrates fails.

The Greeks were obsessed with understanding this problem: it occupied minds as different as Plato and Thucydides. And it retains a healthy capacity to spark anxiety today. There may be no sure way to prevent a would-be Thrasymachus from running roughshod over those higher purposes of governing that Socrates sought to defend, but journalists have traditionally shouldered this burden. The long-form journalist in particular has provided the means of pushing back against tyranny, whether in the form of outright repression or in the more insidious guise of popular prejudice. Socrates never wrote a word, and without the writings of his diligent student Plato, the world might not know how he lived and how he died. The warning, then, might have passed into history unnoticed.

The world is a noisier place than ever before, and it seems unlikely that the din will abate. Blogs can only do so much to penetrate this soup, to draw us out of our private selves and to awaken us toward the pressing demands of an uncertain age. As Sullivan asserts, “blogging suffers from the same flaws as postmodernism: a failure to provide stable truth or a permanent perspective.” Unstable truths are no truths at all: they can offer no answer to Thrasymachus.

As such, we cannot follow Sullivan, we cannot sit back confidently and assert that the rise of blogs has reinvigorated traditional long-form writing, that “the torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.” The value of the long-form writers comes from his or her scarcity, yet such people have always been scarce. The risk is not that such voices will cease to be, but that, in the heavy murmur of an unreflective digital crowd, they will find no means of being heard. I’ll give Sullivan the last word: “a good blog is your own private Wikipedia.”

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© 2009

The Death Of Journalism

Luke Thompson