Stella investigates: the death of the newspaper and the future of journalism

Stella sat down with a nationally-acclaimed journalist to talk about the decline of the newspaper industry and the future of the craft.

I cancelled my subscription to The Washington Post earlier this year.

That makes me feel disappointed.

What are you reading?

I get the Post. I read less than I used to because I read most of the breaking news online the night before.  But still, there’s nothing like opening up the paper for me.

First thing is the Post, then in rotating order, the New York Times, New Yorker blogs, Gawker, BBC to see headlines, g-mail, XX Factor.  There’s more of a pressure now to be a part of the cultural conversation.

One of my favorite experiences is to read the local paper when I travel.  It blows my mind when people are reading USA Today. Why would you lean towards that?

Which subscriptions?

The Post, the New York Times and The New Yorker. I used to get Harpers and The Atlantic. The result [of the Internet] is you think you’re reading more, but you’re reading less.  You are better informed at a surface level and less informed at a really deep level.

Who’s competing with the Post now?

The Post is a gritty city paper that was elevated during Watergate. It covers federal government and accountability reporting that should never go away, but the political reporting is challenged by Politico.  Politico is Washington Post people who went off and did their own thing and they are breaking stories all the time.

Also, crime blogs or neighborhood blogs have a more granular take on the community.  Within a day of something happening it’s up there.

When will they print the last Washington Post?

Hopefully never.  But you can see in the last 10 years it’s half the size – it might get physically smaller in size, maybe not a daily. The content will change to less breaking news, but more investigative stories, more deep analysis.

Whither investigative reporting?

The big questions is will a paper pay for a reporter to spend time digging on a story where there might be nothing there, but it takes time, i.e. money, to have someone dig.  You never know what the results will be.  Foundations and nonprofits are stepping up.  ProPublica has hired a stable of the best investigative reporters.

Speaking truth to power is expensive. What one worries about is who will be making sure the government fulfills its promises? Basic watchdog accountability stuff.

How are journalists reacting?

There’s a psychic crisis among journalists, it’s a calling you love, it’s a real identity crisis.  A lot of journalists are so tired of these conversations because it’s all anyone talks about …buyouts and early retirements.  This tribe has always been exempt from the business side of things and now that dominates our lives. I used to read Romenesko, the aggregator of media stories, but it’s like a funereal so I stopped reading it.

But, the dirty secret is that many are very happy.  If you are an investigative journalist at the LA Times who is now doing policy stuff for AARP, it’s very engaging.  And you make money.  The big surprise is that people who have to reinvent themselves are finding great things to do.

How do young journalists feel?

Journalists coming out of journalism schools are just as excited as 30 years ago, but there are no jobs. They have the same talent and the same hunger.  Journalism schools have never been better because so many journalists have lost their jobs and are now teaching.

It’s good to have new voices in papers and on the web that don’t use the traditional structure of the inverted pyramid.  It frees them up in unimaginable ways.

But what is worrisome is that you still have to go out and report the story. You can write it any way you choose, but modern kids want to send questions from their computer and won’t pick up the phone.  Part of the terror of being a journalist is looking someone in the eye and asking a question. Technology creates a laziness and a distance.

How has the Web informed your writing?

What I do is so specialized that it’s not in my calculus. My concern is will people read long stories, 7-screen stories? Every newspaper has sent out mandates for shorter stories, across the board. The media’s metabolism is running so high that it puts pressure on those of us who write slower and longer.

What troubles me is that if the premium is on breaking stories, you have someone reporting off broken news and they start blogging without reporting.  You often have blogs instead of newspaper stories…less original reporting and more attitude and analysis.

I think a great example of the web was when Michael Jackson died on a Thursday afternoon.  By Thursday night and Friday morning you had amazing essays of high literary quality, film clips, personal testimonies – all right there for you. So there are many good things about this moment.  But that energy is not going into what Congress should be doing in health care.

What’s Act Two for you?

Just to keep writing. I can’t imagine anything else…always writing in some form.  Will it include reporting is the question.

4 responses to “Stella investigates: the death of the newspaper and the future of journalism”

  1. Dave says:

    This is a really interesting interview that raises some great questions. The news media business is changing rapidly, and it seems that newspapers, which have been trying not to change much since the middle of the last century, are finally having to adjust. And we’re losing a lot in that process of change — although we’re also gaining some things, as the interview points out.

    The question of who will pay for the expensive, labor-intensive side of journalism — investigative reporting, covering city council meetings, etc. — is very much open. Will that kind of journalism continue at all? Will we need to find not-for-profit funding streams for it?

  2. Dave says:

    As for the Washington Post, its quality has really fallen off in the ten years I’ve been reading it. Here’s Yglesias today on a persistent problem there. Dean Baker has items about the crappiness of the Post every day (not that other papers escape his wrath).

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Local newspapers (or new startups) may move to entirely online because of the printing and distribution costs; the public will always want local news which provides not only information but a sense of community (city council, police blotter, weddings/births/and deaths, local sports, etc.) Local merchants will still pay for advertising especially if it doesn’t cost as much. And, local goverment offices shell out alot of clams for mandated legal notices.

  4. LP says:

    “The Post is a gritty city paper that was elevated during Watergate. It covers federal government and accountability reporting that should never go away, but the political reporting is challenged by Politico.”

    This is an interesting and important observation. Ever since Watergate, the Post has considered itself a top-tier paper, on a par with the New York Times. But especially in the last 5-6 years, that hasn’t been the case at all. The Post does win a fair number of Pulitzers, and there are plenty of top-rate reporters. But the overall quality of the paper, from top to bottom, doesn’t match that of the NYT.

    The Post also has a split personality, which doesn’t help: It wants to be relevant on the national / world stage, but it has never been available in paper form anywhere but the DC area, while the NYT distributes nationwide. Over the years, it has veered between trying to be the national leader for government / political news, but the top editors have also focused intently on drawing more local readers. It can’t quite decide what it wants to be.