As some folks close to this blog already know, I became a father last week. In the months leading up to the big event, I did a lot of thinking about how different a world my son will be growing up in than what I grew up in. Admittedly, I was mostly intrigued by the superficial, like the kinds of pop culture icons that will seem totally ancient to him: Cheers will seem as old to him as I Love Lucy seemed to me. Nirvana will seem as old to him as the Beatles seemed to me. And E.T. will look as dated to him as movies like Inherit The Wind seemed to me.
But beyond the superficial, there’s a major technological gap between even those of us born in the 1970s and those being born today. Even with a father who worked in the early high-tech industry, I didn’t grow up in a world of gadgets. My son is likely to be using high-tech toys and playing with high-tech games that I couldn’t even conceive of as a youngster. But there are even starker divides among the living that I began to think about as I held my day-old son in the hospital while Willard Scott was on TV wishing people a Happy 100th Birthday.
Someone born in 1909 was raised in a radically different world than what we have now. If someone wanted to send a birth announcement across the country, the letter would’ve taken weeks to get there. If someone in Seattle wanted their relatives on the East Coast to hear their son’s voice, they’d have to wait until at least 1915 when transcontinental phone service was first set up. If a family wanted to take that newborn child to Japan and back, it would take them weeks or even months. And if that family wanted to be informed about events in the world that their son was growing up in, they relied on printed newspapers, often produced by well-heeled interests who would allow their personal biases to strongly influence how they presented the news to their readership.
It’s odd that with all of the technological progress we’ve made in 100 years, we still seem a little surprised to see this massively outdated way of keeping people informed going away. Even with TV and radio, newspapers still provided an advantage in that the consumer could easily skip over things they weren’t interested in, but all three of those media suffered from the same problem, that only a limited number of people had influence over the content. If a news outlet had an interest in hiding the truth or manufacturing a separate reality, it often had the means to do so. Taking that possibility to an extreme can lead to overly conspiratorial thinking, but it certainly was the reality sometimes. And alternate perspectives could often be sidelined.
The internet, of course, has blown the lid off of this. In 1909, if someone – or a group of people – could prove that something in the daily newspaper was intentionally misleading or false, most people would never find out. Today, liars in print journalism are quickly exposed. Fraudulent reporting is frequently called out. The internet has allowed us to fill in the gaps where the traditional media of newspapers, magazines, and television have failed us. The first major illustration of this was the Iraq War. People began to understand the extent to which they weren’t being properly informed by the outmoded media outlets of the 20th century, and we began to rely more on better avenues for keeping ourselves informed.
I remember telling people back in 2006 or so that the internet was about 2 years ahead of traditional media outlets when it comes to framing the issues in more truthful and more realistic ways. This has been true for issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Americans are now far more aware that this is a conflict where Israeli aggression shares as much blame as Palestinian terrorism for the deadlock. This has been true for gay marriage, where public opinion has shifted significantly as more and more people are exposed to the human reality of in-born homosexuality. And this has been true for universal health care, as the fiscal and functional superiority of socialist-minded European systems has become more understood (and Michael Moore’s movie arguably played a big part in that too). At the time, I predicted that a drug policy shift would be coming, and sure enough, it has now exploded onto the national scene, primarily because the internet community has been forcing the traditional media to catch up to its level of understanding.
In each of these cases, the traditional media has either ignored reality or actively tried to hide it. Why? It’s been done for a number of reasons – historically strong sympathies with Israel, concerns over alienating a large conservative Christian news consumer base, wealthy special interests, and sometimes just general inertia and a fear to challenge conventional wisdom. But whenever media interests are controlled by a small number of extremely wealthy individuals as they are now, it’s unrealistic to expect them to truly be the voice of the people or to take our perspective into account. Of course, as the tea-baggers are now demonstrating, not all of us have the ability to figure out when the wealthy are convincing us to believe in stupid shit in order to further their own interests.
Last week on the Colbert Report, Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle gave a familiar response concerning the death of newspapers, warning that it cost the Boston Globe over a million dollars to investigate the Catholic Church pedophile scandal, and therefore things like that won’t get uncovered if newspapers go away. Of course, Microsoft once believed that since they spent millions of dollars developing operating systems, office productivity software, web servers, and databases that no one could do those things for free too.
But Bronstein isn’t completely wrong. There needs to be some new form of revenue for people who provide good journalism. The best opinion and area expert bloggers out there rely on good reporting and are just as lost as the rest of us without it. And I think it falls to us – opinion and area expert bloggers – to decide how much value we place on being informed, and to come up with a way to preserve and promote good journalism before it goes away. But I also think we have the technology and the resources to develop a system that’s far superior to what we ever got from the top-down controlled media empires we’ve all grown up with.
It seems extremely unlikely at this point that any pay-per-view model will ever take shape on the internet. Putting new content behind a subscription firewall doesn’t bring in revenue as much as it decreases the amount of traffic, which is arguably the more important commodity for sustaining a journalistic enterprise today. Today, there are still tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of paid journalists across the globe putting their content online for free. But as newspapers cut back and fold, how much of that will we start to lose? I think it’s a very real possibility to get to Phil Bronstein’s worst case scenario, where big news stories simply have no one covering them.
I’m throwing out an idea here that I’ve begun to formulate, but haven’t shared with anyone yet. I want to encourage people to send me feedback on it. The idea is for a monthly “subscription” portfolio. (I put the word subscription in quotes because it’s actually more like a donation than a subscription) For instance, a standard portfolio would be like $20 a month, and you would set each dollar of that portfolio to go to a journalist that you rely on for good, accurate reporting. Or maybe it could go towards a group of journalists at a legacy outfit.
What I see this doing is two-fold. First, it creates a bottom-up way of rewarding good journalism. Second, it separates the legacy newspaper function that bloggers have trouble replacing (report journalism) with the one that they’re often significantly better at (opinion and analysis). Some journalists, if they choose, could provide perks for that $1 “subscription”, like a daily email or the ability to have specific questions answered and investigated. For instance, let’s say I want to “subscribe” to an Olympia reporter. Because I subscribe to that reporter, I may be able to have them pop into Frank Chopp’s office and get the answer to a specific question for me (as I’ve learned from experience, I will not get an answer if I email that clown directly). Maybe that privilege costs $5 a month. Who knows?
Again, these are just some preliminary ideas that I’m throwing out for discussion and feedback. I’ve been hearing a lot about catastrophic consequences to the death of print journalism. I don’t think this is an area where we need a government bailout or anything, but it may end up being entirely up to us in order to figure out how to sustain an industry that we’ve relied on in order to reach a new plateau in keeping us all better informed. It’s a beautiful thing to have right now and something I want to preserve for the next generation.