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The News About the Internet

The State of the News Media, 2009: An Annual Report on American Journalism”

by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism

Ross Douthat at The New York Times: nytimes.com

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Talking Points Memo, the blog started in 2000 by Josh Marshall, July 14, 2009

Of all the dismal and discouraging numbers to have emerged from the world of newspapers—the sharp plunges in circulation, the dizzying fall-off in revenues, the burgeoning debt, the mounting losses—none seems as sobering as the relentless march of layoffs and buyouts. According to the blog Paper Cuts, newspapers lost 15,974 jobs in 2008 and another 10,000 in the first half of 2009. That’s 26,000 fewer reporters, editors, photographers, and columnists to cover the world, analyze political and economic affairs, root out corruption and abuse, and write about culture, entertainment, and sports.

The membership of the Military Reporters and Editors Association has fallen from six hundred in 2001 to under one hundred today. In April, Cox Newspapers closed its Washington office, contributing to the dramatic decline in the number of reporters covering the federal government. The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Newsday have all closed their foreign bureaus. Because of repeated retrenchments, the McClatchy newspapers, which include The Sacramento Bee, The Charlotte Observer, and more than two dozen other dailies across the US, cannot afford to open a South Asia bureau that’s been in the works for three years, or to keep a full-time correspondent in Mexico or even Baghdad, where its bureau has done such standout work. In “the good old days,” McClatchy editor Mark Seibel recently wrote, the organization could lay off reporters “and insist with a straight face that there would be no change in our ability to cover the news. No more. The last year of layoffs, cutbacks and consolidations have hurt. Bad.”

In an online chat with readers earlier this year, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller deplored the “diminishing supply of quality journalism” at a time of “growing demand.” By quality journalism, he said, he meant the kind “that involves experienced reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking, backed by editors who try to enforce high standards.” The supply of such journalism, he added,

is declining because it is hard, expensive, sometimes dangerous work. The traditional practitioners of this craft—mainly newspapers—have been downsizing or declaring bankruptcy. The wonderful florescence of communication ignited by the Internet contains countless voices riffing on the journalism of others but not so many that do serious reporting of their own.

Keller’s lament—one of a steady chorus rising from the industry—contains a feature common to many of them: a put-down of the Web and the bloggers who regularly comment on Web sites. David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and the creator of The Wire, offered a particularly barbed version during recent testimony in the Senate on the future of journalism. While the Internet is “a marvelous tool,” he declared, it

leeches…reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin—namely the newspapers themselves. In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

This image of the Internet as parasite has some foundation. Without the vital news-gathering performed by established institutions, many Web sites would sputter and die. In their sweep and scorn, however, such statements seem as outdated as they are defensive. Over the past few months alone, a remarkable amount of original, exciting, and creative (if also chaotic and maddening) material has appeared on the Internet. The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.

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The two bloggers most commonly recognized as the medium’s pioneers, Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan, are, remarkably, still at it. Kaus, who started the blog kausfiles in 1999, is now at Slate, and Sullivan, who began The Daily Dish in 2000, now posts at The Atlantic. Both still use the style they helped popularize—short, sharp, conversational bursts of commentary and opinion built around links to articles, columns, documents, and other blogs. At first glance, this approach might seem to bear out the charge of parasitism. In early July, for instance, Sullivan, under the headline “Where the Far Right Now Is,” wrote:

I watched this in Aspen [where he was attending a conference]. Michael Scheuer is actually saying that the only “hope” for the US is a major attack from Osama bin Laden. This is where they are, getting nuttier by the day.

Below was a link to a clip from Fox News on which Scheuer, a former CIA analyst, indeed expressed the hope that bin Laden would attack the US so that its government would finally take the measures needed to protect the American people.

Sullivan is here riffing on the journalism of others while doing no conventional reporting of his own. But, as a regular reading of his posts shows, his multiple links to a wide array of sources, processed through his idiosyncratic gay-Catholic-Thatcherite- turned-libertarian-radical mind, produces an engaging and original take on the world. A dramatic demonstration of this occurred just after the Iranian elections, when his site became an up-to-the-minute clearinghouse for e-mails, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, photos, and e-mails from Tehran, many posted before mainstream news outlets could get hold of them. Sullivan made no pretense of being balanced— he devoutly desired the overthrow of the hard-line establishment supporting Ahmadinejad and tilted his site to that end—but at a time when Western journalists were largely muzzled, The Daily Dish served as a nerve center for news from the Iranian street. While reading his site, I was also watching CNN, and it seemed clear that Sullivan, sitting at his computer, outperformed CNN’s entire global network.

The Sullivan-and-Kaus snip-it-and-comment approach remains popular with many bloggers, but over the years it has given rise to a number of offspring that have become models of their own. Among the most prominent is Talking Points Memo (TPM), begun by Josh Marshall in 2000, when he was the Washington editor of The American Prospect. After constantly clashing with his fellow editors—he liked both Bill Clinton and free trade more than they did—he began freelancing and blogging on his own. While he was inspired by Sullivan and Kaus, Marshall was a reporter at heart and included on his blog more material that he had uncovered himself. The result was a new type of blog that not only commented on the news but also occasionally broke it.

An early milestone came in 2002, when Marshall latched onto Trent Lott’s racist-tinged comments about Strom Thurmond and, calling attention to them in frequent posts, contributed to Lott’s fall. As TPM’s readership expanded, Marshall was able to attract advertisers, which in turn allowed him to hire staff, which helped him break more news. Tips flowed in from readers about political goings-on in their communities. Sifting through them, Marshall in 2007 was able to detect a pattern in the firing by the Bush administration of US attorneys across the country. His angry posts on the matter helped bring it to the attention of the national press, earning him a George Polk Award.

Today, Talking Points Memo is one of the most visited political sites on the Web. In addition to Marshall’s own blog, it includes TPMDC, which covers the capital, TPMmuckraker, which does investigations, and TPMcafé, which features outside contributors. TPM’s rapid growth reflects a broader political shift that’s taken place on the Web. Back in 2005, when I last wrote about the blogosphere,* it was dominated by the right, with the scrappy Drudge Report in the lead. Today, the liberal left is ascendant (with energy among conservatives channeled instead into talk radio).

During a recent visit to TPM’s office, on West 20th Street in Manhattan, the place seemed eerily quiet as a dozen or so young reporters, writers, and “aggregators” (who link to other Web sites) peered intently at their computer screens. Marshall, a poker-faced forty-year-old, told me that he spends much of each work day reading through reader e-mails. “Relative to size, the volume of quality e-mails we get is an order of magnitude greater than either The New York Times or The Washington Post,” he said.

It allows us to do more than even a newspaper can. Political reporters have good sources, but they tend to be professional sources, who are used to picking up the phone and giving tips to reporters. We’re into a whole class of people who are not acculturated to the world of political journalism. If something happens in Kansas, I’ll hear about it.

Over the years, Marshall has helped train many cyber-savvy reporter-bloggers who have taken their skills to other, better-endowed institutions. Take the example of Paul Kiel. After two years at TPM, he was hired by ProPublica, an online investigative unit backed by multimillion-dollar grants from the former real estate magnate Herbert Sandler and other philanthropists. Since its start in 2008, the ProPublica staff, working out of a sleek modern space in lower Manhattan, has produced exposés on everything from the involvement of doctors in torture to the contamination of drinking water by gas drilling.

At first, ProPublica focused mainly on carrying out joint investigations with established news organizations such as 60 Minutes and The New York Times and distributing its findings through them, but it has come to see the value of building up its own Web site. Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who heads the operation, speaks glowingly of all the “really smart Web-oriented journalistically informed people” he’s been hiring, Paul Kiel among them. “He’s like a reincarnated I.F. Stone,” Steiger told me, “but instead of reading government documents alone, he scours the Web, then makes a phone call or two. The guy just moves the ball.”

One of Kiel’s duties is surfing the Internet for investigative work done by others. Too often, Steiger says, such work becomes “road kill,”—i.e. ignored or skipped over—but by aggregating and commenting on it, Kiel and his colleagues help gain it more attention. Kiel has also set up a subsite devoted to tracking the money spent by Washington. The site remains a work in progress—its daunting mass of numbers, charts, and graphs is not easy for novices to navigate—but it’s part of a much-watched experiment to test the feasibility of doing investigative reporting on the Web.

Kiel is an example of an emerging new breed of “hybrids,” schooled in both the practices of print journalism and the uses of cyberspace. Other examples include Matthew Yglesias, a twenty-eight-year-old who began blogging while an undergraduate at Harvard and who now writes on American politics and policy at Think Progress, the blog of the Center for American Progress, and Ross Douthat, who after graduating from Harvard in 2002 joined The Atlantic, where he both edited and blogged, and who earlier this year became a columnist at The New York Times. Ezra Klein, who began blogging while a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has developed an expertise in health care that so impressed the editors of The Washington Post that this spring they hired him to blog on its site. “Explanation has become more important than commentary,” says Klein, who is all of twenty-five.

  1. *

    The End of News?The New York Review, December 1, 2005.

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