Baffled Journalists Tell Other Baffled Journalists Their Fortunes

Yesterday Lewis Lapham, former Harper’s and current Lapham’s Quarterly editor, and three other journalists gave a talk about “The Future of Journalism” at the Instituto de Cervantes in midtown. It was both infuriating and enlightening.

Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk, Der Spiegel correspondent Martin Pollack, and former foreign correspondent for the New York Times Mary Anne Weaver were the ones who joined Lapham.

There were some problems right off the bat with this discussion. The youngest among them was Luyendijk, who was born in 1971, and the oldest was Lapham, who was born in 1935. Pollack admitted to not even having a cellphone. Weaver didn’t really have anything new to add. Everyone was white and, seemlingly, affluent. Nobody blogged, nobody worked in tech. Everybody was very worried about the continuation of longform journalism and reportage.

There is nothing in and of itself wrong with that, and I am a fierce advocate for longform, but the homogeneity of this panel was frustrating. They brought up very real concerns, such as the dwindling number of foreign correspondents, but everyone’s tone seemed so removed.

There were a few interesting things that got brought up, like Bloomberg’s 1284 foreign correspondents. But there were no real perspectives on how something like the Newark Star Ledger could possibly emulate that. It shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone why business papers are making ridiculous amounts of money–they always have. As Lapham pointed out, the first works of journalism were reporting on market prices.

Lapham also seemed to think that journalism’s problems today are any different than what they were at any other point. “I would assume there will be two tiers” of news, he said: “very high end information, journalism, literary journalism or however, for a relatively small audience willing to pay for it. And then the rabble.” He also agreed with a person in the audience when he said that “laziness” had to do with why the aforementioned rabble do not read 25,000 word pieces.

There is really only one way to save journalism, and that’s to pull the plug on free news. Look, the internet is like Cookie Monster, except instead of cookies it eats intellectual property. I don’t think that news or music or writing or movies should be free unless the person(s) behind the creation say it should be. And hell, I steal plenty of music and I will miss my free New York Times website next year, but I also know that it’s an indefensible and unsustainable position to think otherwise. If information wants to be free, well, so does heat. But we find ways to contain it.

Afterwards, the people with whom I went to the discussion–all of them under 25–pretty much thought that the whole thing was kind of stale. One of the things that we particularly resented is this talk about the halcyon days of the 80s and 90s by older journalists. While I was willing to give some benefit of the doubt that maybe in that time there was better writing because they could hire more people, my friend Liz pointed out that, if it was so good, how did they not even see this coming? Not all newspapers should get all the blame, as it wasn’t a uniform ignorance of this problem, but I think there needs to be a sobering up of our assessment of the glory days. Yes, there used to be the profligate Tina Brown, and now there’s the penny-pinching David Remnick. But Brown was able to bathe her staff with money because people agreed to pay money for writing.

I don’t think that there’s really an option of mass paywalls backfiring for news, but I do think that there has been serious harm done to the citizenry that will take a generation or so to fix. As brutal and heartless business can be, it also involves trust–specifically that what I give you in terms of money is about equal to what you’re giving me in terms of information. But for, what, ten years or so, we trust news now just because it’s there–and it’s fucking everywhere. I’m worried that even after a broad lock-out of news sites goes up, there will be a suspicion directed towards our news sources, because we once had it all for free until they stepped in to take it away from us. And suspicion directed towards our very news sources is scary because it impedes us, the citizenry, from making informed decisions. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that people shrug their shoulders and think, ‘well, that was fun while it lasted’ and then go on with the rest of their lives.

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