Democratizing the Media: At What Cost?

Point of View by U.S. Studies Director Sonya Michel, Centerpoint, November 2009

Nov 05, 2009

In his 1979 book Deciding What's News, sociologist Herbert Gans denounced the narrowness of American journalism and called for "multi-perspectival" practices that would admit "alternative" voices. With the emergence of the electronic news world, Gans's vision has come to fruition. But at what cost?

The Internet potentially turns every citizen into a publisher with an audience of millions, but as readers—especially the young—migrate to the new media, newspapers are no longer serving as the common foundation for American civic culture. Must the democratizing of the media necessarily spell the end of journalism as we knew it?

Over the past decade, newspaper circulation has fallen off drastically. While continuing to sell print editions, most papers now offer free online versions. Meanwhile, Internet news sources and devices such as iPhones purvey newspapers' contents without paying them a fee—and anti-trust laws bar the papers from forming a united front to demand compensation.

Another blow comes from the shift of classified advertising to Craigslist and the disappearance of much display advertising, together formerly the major source of newspapers' revenue. As a result, newspaper executives have had to make drastic cuts, firing staff, and deleting features such as book reviews or whole sections. Many papers have closed altogether.

We can calculate the losses in terms of disappearing jobs and declining profits, but what's less measurable is how this affects the American public, as fewer reporters means less coverage of current events and long-term investigations. Critics fear that without reliable sources of information and balanced interpretation, citizens will be unable to participate effectively in the public sphere.

To be sure, there is no dearth of instant news online, and the blogosphere allows anyone with Internet access to express their views. These voices offer fresh but often unreliable and highly politicized perspectives. News flashes cannot replace in-depth reporting, and bloggers must still depend on accurate reporting to provide grist for their opinions.

At university conferences and congressional hearings this year, scholars, journalists, and legislators have debated remedies for the newspaper crisis, including allowing papers to become tax-exempt nonprofit entities, offering them special tax breaks, and tightening copyright laws to force Internet aggregators to pay for content. In December, the Federal Trade Commission will hold a workshop on whether journalism will survive the Internet age. The citizen newshounds will no doubt be out in full force, but how many newspapers will be around to cover it?