The future of the news business

It was a week that began with the management of The New York Times forcing out the paper's executive editor after just three years. A few days later, exhibiting what can only be called eccentric news judgment, page one of The Washington Post featured one story on trendy restaurants for upscale Washingtonians and another on teenage rodeos in Maryland. Dull items like Ukraine and Syria and kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls were nowhere in sight.

Think that things have gotten kind of weird in the news business lately? You're absolutely right. In the old media especially--newspapers and magazines, that is--signs abound of continuing decline, growing angst, and a nervous scramble to reach out to new audiences or at least hang on to the dwindling audiences they've still got.

Browsing in the Columbia Journalism Review, you find a writer referring casually, as if speaking of a fait accompli, to "the collapse of the newspaper industry." To which, of course, one familiar response is: "So what? Take a look at the Internet--there are as many news sites out there as any sane person could want. And many of them are generated by old news media making their move into the digital era."

That's all very well, but it ignores a crucial point. Covering the news is a labor-intensive enterprise, and the number of media actually attempting to do it--especially in the national and international sectors--has always been comparatively small and is getting smaller all the time. Newsrooms have shrunk. Foreign and domestic bureaus have closed right and left as an economy measure. In the news business now, fewer and fewer are trying to do more and more with less and less.

As for news on the Internet, it's largely the province of aggregators--sites featuring links to coverage provided by those who still hang in there doing original work--along with a wilderness of bloggers who opinionate on the news but don't cover it.

The situation in secular media is mirrored in religious media. Many diocesan weeklies have shut down, switched to biweekly or monthly, or else transitioned to the Internet. Many magazines similarly have disappeared or also moved onto the web. Blogs and bloggers have multiplied. By no means is this all for the worse, but who'd care to say it's all for the best?

Speaking at meeting in Rome, Helen Osman, the top communication official of the U.S. bishops' conference, says that "to understand the culture of the United States and how the Church can present the faith within that culture, it is important to realize that the adoption of digital communications is fundamentally changing the culture." Quite so. In the end, moreover, it doesn't matter greatly whether people get their news on a printed page or a screen. But it does matter that they get it--and that it be timely, accurate, honest, and fair. Religious leaders, just like other leaders in society, need to worry about that.

It's often said that the proliferation of news-related sites on the Internet means people have plenty of news sources at their disposal and can fend for themselves. But the ugly reality is that many, instead of digging for the truth of things, settle cheerfully for the version of events--and the site--that tickles their particular bias. The old news media had lots of faults, but at their best they made an honorable effort to get the facts and tell the story straight. However you look at it, their decline is very bad news.

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

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