Saturday, March 16, 2013

Critique of Starr's "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)"

In his influential book The Creation of the Media, Paul Starr argues that constitutive choices made by the nation's founders at the time of the creation of the U.S. created the conditions that allowed the American media system to develop in a different fashion than those of the countries of Europe. The overriding motivation of the founders, Starr argues, was to create and maintain a democratic republic over the large geographic expanse of the new United States. And to do that, among other things, the founders put policies in place to encourage the creation and distribution of newspapers. They adopted a constitution that protected freedom of speech and freedom of the press and granted Congress the ability to pass copyright laws. Then, by statute, at a time when the federal footprint was intentionally small, the government created a network of post offices to allow for the national exchange of information, and they further created subsidies for newspapers, allowing them to send issues to subscribers at a discounted rate, as well as to exchange editions with each other via the postal service at no charge.

Starr's major claims in The Creation of the Media lie at the heart of his argument in "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption)." He says that the decline in newspapers in the last two decades, including gutting of editorial staffs and "shrinking in numbers of pages, breadth of news coverage, features of various kinds, and home delivery of print editions" (p. 1) matters, because the Internet has not and cannot fill one of the traditional democratic roles of the press to act as a watchdog of government and corporate misconduct. According to Starr, empirical studies have shown that newspapers provide the majority of original coverage of public affairs and set the agenda for other news media, including television.

The reason for Starr's concern is his claim: "The reality is that resources for journalism are now disappearing from the old media faster than new media can develop them" (p. 2). And the result of this, he says, quoting Tom Rosenstiel, is: "More of American life will occur in shadows. We won't know what we won't know" (p. 2). Governmental and business corruption will increase with the decrease in press scrutiny, especially since online news sources, when not borrowing from newspapers, are more focused on opinion and more susceptible to bias than the print press.

Starr outlines how the rise of the Internet supplanted the newspaper's roles as the primary provider of information and the primary market intermediary (connecting advertisers to consumers) in a community. At the same time, online versions of newspapers are not a way to save the newspapers, as he cites Rosenstiel's estimation that ending a print edition of a publication would save it 40 percent in costs, but at the expense of 90 percent of its revenue.

Starr also examines how the staffing cuts at newspapers are directly affecting the coverage of government officials, whether it be coverage of Congress with an eye on local representatives and issues or a decline in coverage of state government, which has traditionally primarily been the job of newspapers. Starr argues that fewer reporters do not just mean less coverage, but also a lower quality of reports, as expertise is lost and internal checks disappear.

Despite his concerns about the demise of newspapers, Starr acknowledges that the Internet and "the social transformation under way" are "creating new possibilities for free expression and democratic politics" (p. 7). But he points to the unintended--and negative--consequences of the transformation, especially the way the Internet has unbundled the traditional products of the newspaper (classified ads, etc.) and provided non-news options to readers, so that a knowledge gap has opened between "the news drop-outs and the news junkies" (p. 8). And with the rise of partisan news options may come "greater ideological polarization in both the news-attentive public and the news media" (p.8). And Starr says that while the ability to share information (as advocated by Yochai Benkler) is a good thing, there is a dark side, as "people can now share their misinformation as well as their knowledge" (p. 8).

In the end, Starr argues that the advantages of the Internet taking over newspapers' role as a market intermediary--the efficiency and lower cost of information dissemination--come with "a cost to democratic values," as newspapers' lost profits prevent them from producing the public good of civic news. And the Internet can't fill this void. He writes: "The non-market collaborative networks on the Web celebrated by Benkler represent an alternative way of producing information as a public good," but the Internet "has severe limitations as a source of knowledge" (p. 9). The ability to pay for the training and deployment of professional news reporters to investigate and cover important stories is how newspapers served the democratic role of the press. He cites Walter Lippmann's declaration that the newspaper is "the bible of democracy," arguing that while that is no longer the case, newspapers still perform the task Lippmann describes of "separating rumor from fact" (p. 9). He says: "Although daily journalism may be losing its economic foundation, it has not lost its justification" (p. 10).

Starr's solution is an increase in philanthropic journalism to fill the void of paying for the public good of news that can no longer be filled by newspapers. The government is not an option, he says, since the press has to be separate from the government it watches over.

Starr concludes with this warning: "News coverage is not all that newspapers have given us. They have lent the public a powerful means of leverage over the state, and this leverage is now at risk. If we take seriously the notion of newspapers as a fourth estate or a fourth branch of government, the end of the age of newspapers implies a change in our political system itself. Newspapers have helped to control corrupt tendencies in both government and business. If we are to avoid a new era of corruption, we are going to have to summon that power in other ways. Our new technologies do not retire our old responsibilities" (p. 12).

I found Starr's argument and brief history to be accurate, representative of the current state of affairs and compelling. He would have benefited from access to a book that came out a year after his article, The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, which provides a history of the decline of newspapers and blueprint for a solution. McChesney and Nichols outline how corporate debt-filled acquisitions of family newspapers were instrumental in creating a destructive spiral of profit motives, debt service, cost cutting and decreased quality, right along side the effects of the Internet. And their proposed solution--federal subsidies directed to news operations via the individual decisions of consumers--while not especially practical given the current gridlocked political environment, does provide an answer as how the government could (if it wanted to) provide the resources to pay for the public good of news without influencing the content. But on its own merits, Starr's article makes a convincing case for why the decline of newspapers has posed a threat to an important democratic function traditionally performed--and, as importantly, paid for--by the press.

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