Reporting is not a paper product

A poster on the Baseball Primer Newsblog wondered if I’d dissed newspaper writers in my post “Newspaper crisis means MLB plays in secret.” I’d spoofed the idea that the shrinking of the ranks of beat writers due to newsroom layoffs and cutbacks was damaging coverage of major league baseball.

“There is value to the day in-day out reporting those beat writers perform, though,” wrote “Holliday in Alameda (jonathan).” He went on, “I mean I get his overall point, but I hope he’s not also trying to belittle what the newspapermen have been doing. Without those guys, we get no trade rumors, no injury details, etc. etc.”

I was not belittling what newspaper beat writers have done and continue to do. It’s honest work, done brilliantly by some, well by others and so on down the spectrum to hacktastically by a few.

But there’s a lot of redundancy. I’ve been in that pack, knowing I was writing essentially the same story a bunch of other writers were writing. It’s good to have myriad voices covering all sorts of things. The straight reporting — the gamer, in newspaper parlance — of the outcome of a baseball game is probably not one of them. The idea that the loss of some newspaper beat writers is having any real affect on overall baseball coverage this year, as the piece I took off from posited, is silly.

But beyond that, the commenter is raising a point that I hear a lot in the various conversations about the future of journalism that have become a constant in my life lately: Without newspapers, reporting dies. The Internet is fine for commentary and analysis and snark and flame wars, but to get the raw material, there must be newspapers.

It’s not true. By a lot.

This point of view, reporting needs newspapers, presumes that newspapers have invested in long-term reporting, beats and investigations, out of charity, out of the goodness of their hearts, or at least out of altruism.

Newspapers aren’t altruistic. Newspaper people are, overwhelmingly so. But as an institution, a newspaper isn’t altruistic. It’s a business. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why newspapers are chopping expensive reporters and beats and keeping the crossword puzzle. Shouldn’t they keep the important stuff to the bitter end?

What newspapers are doing when they’re pursuing those expensive Big Important Stories is polishing the brand. The Big Important Story might play an important part in the civil discourse, but it also brings prestige and power to the paper. Have you ever seen a newspaper fail to market its journalism awards or any effect it’s had on the world?

People mostly buy the paper for the ball scores and the crossword and the TV listings — or they did, anyway, when they bought papers. The prestigious stories don’t sell a lot of copies directly. The local team winning the Super Bowl does that. But there are secondary effects. The better the journalism, for example, the easier it is to attract and retain the best talent — who can help you sell more papers.

But forget all that. Let’s either assume the last four paragraphs are completely wrong or just imagine that newspapers do what they do out of pure, uncomplicated altruism. The local blat puts a reporter in the courthouse because, goshdarnit, it’s the right damn thing to do.

Why is it the right thing to do? Because our society has a need for watchdogs on its institutions, a need for information about itself. Newspapers didn’t create that need. They were invented to fill it. Circumstances have changed so that newspapers are no longer an effective way to fill that need. That hasn’t made the need go away.

So why wouldn’t somebody or something step in to fill it?

Imagine yourself walking around 200 years ago, when newspapers as we recognize them today were just coming into being. You’d probably notice the smell first. You’d be walking around in what by our standards would be a brutish, unsanitary, segregated, uneducated, technologically backward place.

Those people figured out how to get the news to each other! And we, with all our education, worldliness, technology and education, with the lessons of the last 200 years, with the ideas of both men and women, of people of every color and religion from all over the world, not just white men from Europe and the United States — we can’t figure out the same thing?

Newspapers have been struggling for the blink of an eye — a few years, not even a decade. And because nobody has figured out in that millisecond how to make money online from reporting, that’s it? Democracy is doomed? Reporting is dead?

It’s patently absurd. There are better arguments for the earth being flat.

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