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Are Digital Pundits Cheering as Newspapers Struggle?

Distracted by Their Gadgets, Scribes Lose Sight of What's Important

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Are Digital Pundits Cheering as Newspapers Struggle?
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Many of the digital media pundits who have been proclaiming the death of print journalism make it sound as if something will be there to fill the void if and when newspapers fade away.

But what exactly will that be? Citizen journalism seems to have been a fad, and hyperlocal journalism outfits are folding by the week. Online-only news outlets are finding it difficult to sustain themselves on digital advertising revenue, and TV news, locked in an eternal struggle for eyeballs at all costs, seems unlikely to ever offer more than the usual crime news and fluff.

The answer seems clear: If newspapers die off, there will be nothing to replace them and the kind of comprehensive coverage they provide. There's nothing iffy about this. The process has, to some extent, already begun.

What's bothersome is that the digital pundits who write about such things seem to focus almost exclusively on things like delivery platforms and business models, and not on the quality of the journalism being done, or lost. These seems to be little sense of that old-school idea of journalism actually being a public service. Rather, it's all about whether news outlets can make money. The digital pundits have adopted a Darwinian calculus: News outlets that can turn a profit will survive, and those that can't aren't worth saving anyway.

And so, when the company that owns the New Orleans Times-Picayune slashed the newsroom's staff and ended the paper's seven-day-a-week print schedule, much of the discussion was not about aggressive news coverage being lost in the Big Easy (and if ever there was a city that needed such coverage it was New Orleans), but about whether this represented a smart business move.

I've nothing against making money. That's why we call it the news business, after all.

But it seems to me that the scribes who have fallen hard for the shiny new digital world have forgotten their roots. Instead of feeling for the dwindling number of Woodwards and Bernsteins left in newsrooms nationwide, they identify more with the Steve Jobs and Sergey Brins of the world. Distracted by their iPads and smartphones, they've bought hook, line and sinker into the mythos of the era's great digital capitalists, and the corresponding ethos of efficiency, profitability and ruthlessness.

(Indeed, Jeff Jarvis, the king of the digital pundits, actually wrote a book titled "What Would Google Do?" I'll leave it to readers to decide whether this is watchdog journalism or corporate cheerleading, but as one critic wrote: "It is unclear what role Google played, if any, in the preparation of this book, which provides excellent advertising for the company.")

And when newspapers that have long served their communities are forced to close, these pundits don't lament the loss but instead applaud the disruption that hastens the demise of what they derisively call "legacy" media.

The problem is, while these columnists and bloggers may identify with the corporate barons of the digital world, I'm pretty sure that the captains of industry they fawn over couldn't care less. The Internet zillionaires don't live in the same neighborhoods or drive the same cars or send their kids to the same schools as the scribes who earn (if they're lucky) five-figure salaries. This isn't class warfare; it's the truth.

And with newsrooms gutted and investigative journalism fading even as corporate PR spin doctors grow more powerful, there's less and less reason for digital CEOs to fret over what the few crusading reporters left might dig up.

So for anyone who missed the lesson in econ 101, let's review: Corporations, digital or otherwise, are all about making money for their shareholders, whether it's Exxon Mobil or Microsoft, Northrop Grumman or Google. And if the digital revolution means print journalism withers and dies, and the public is left less well informed because there really is no replacement for a good newspaper, then so be it.

That's what the digital scribes should be writing about, but most aren't. They're busy talking baby talk, oohing and aahing over the latest gadget.

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