No news is bad news

I just read James Warren’s article in The Atlantic, “When No News is Bad News,” and I’m a little inspired and depressed at the same time. Why should that be? Warren’s article hasn’t presented me with any information I didn’t know already. Newspapers are in trouble and can’t find a business model to save themselves, yet the work journalists do is vital to public safety and key to keeping our governments honest.

(Of course, Warren says all this with a little more polish than your average blog post does every day, but that’s to be expected from The Atlantic, isn’t it?)

Warren makes some sensible points. Talking about the demise of the New York Times’ pay-wall, via anecdote, he writes that if the columnists want the paper to give their articles away for free so more people will read them, then perhaps the columnists ought to work for free as well. Warren also wonders, again sensibly, why people pay less for the convenience of having a newspaper delivered to their home than they pay for that same issue at the newsstand. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

But Warren’s biggest victory with this article comes from describing specifically how well-funded investigative journalism has benefitted society. Investigative reporting exposed the Watergate scandal, showed the country the conditions at Water Reed hospital, brought to light toxic toys from China and showed the problems plaguing Illinois’ death penalty. Investigative reporting, Warren says, shows us issues that really matter and saves lives. It makes a difference.

Warren also manages to bring out my idealistic side with sentences like this:

Good journalism brings a sense of coherence to our diverse, fragmented, nation. The president, the postman, the podiatrist, the policeman can all pick up the same paper and see the same analysis of what’s important.

And this:

And lastly, we have to be brutally honest with a final, crucial question: Even in our democracy, are there enough people out there who care whether the light of serious journalism is allowed to fail?

Warren doesn’t offer any answers to the problems facing journalism. How can he? There aren’t any to be had. He’s realistic; he recognizes that blogs and online news outlets are popular and thrive on the material created, at cost, by the struggling newspaper business. He realizes that getting customers to pay for news again will be hard.

Some critics would call Warren a codger wailing for lost traditions, unwilling to move into a bold new age, but that’s the boilerplate invective thrown at anyone with the audacity to suggest that the new ways might not be the best ways. Maybe more articles like this will convince people that what professional reporters do at newspapers is worth saving.

Now, if only we could get more people to read articles like this. I fear that if this message keeps appearing on small blogs and in magazines like The Atlantic –publications not read by the majority of the public – then newspapers and all the good things journalism can do will expire before the public realizes they’re really in trouble.