Is The Onion our best newspaper?

Reason magazine contributor Greg Beato offers an interesting view of modern journalism:

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn’t ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion’s journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful.

As a journalist, I have to wonder whether he’s right.

In Infamous Scribblers, Eric Burns tells the story of the origins of newspapers in the American colonies and their evolution throughout the Revolutionary War. Though I haven’t read all of the book, the gist is that the journalistic standards of journalistic the industry holds so dear today did not exist before the 1800s. Newspapers in the colonies provoked people, moved them to action, made them angry and gave them things to shout about, though there were also the mouths of propagandists and angry men who happened to import printing presses.

There’s something enviable about that approach to the news, a kind of “damn the torpedoes (and lawsuits)” approach. Maybe that’s the problem, right there. Newspapers that have become institutions based on good reporting in the past and newspapers who want to become institutions, are finding that “good reporting” has become a relevant term, dependent upon the readership instead of the judgement of professionals who know. The result is a generation of editors and readers attempting to attune themselves to what the readers want, not necessarily what the news is.

The Internet plays a part in this of course. If freely available Web news wasn’t undermining the advertising and subscription bases of print papers, then newspapers could focus more on that hard news that offends people, the biting commentary that blows apart social conventions and gets down to the facts. But newspapers can’t do that. They must cling to the readers and subscribers they have left — if they don’t, there won’t be any newspapers left. A conundrum, if ever there was one.

So is Beato right? Is The Onion our best example of a successful newspaper that sticks to the traditions of what newspapering is? To put it another way, should newspapers strive to be more like The Onion, or would that shift us in an entirely different direction that is equally unpalatable to some?

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