Why Newspapers Matter

Thursday, October 5
5-7 pm
Bartos Theater


Working journalists, media critics and digital visionaries discuss the ongoing transformation and apparent decline of American newspapers. Topics to be addressed: the aging of the newspaper reader, the emergence of citizens' media and the blogosphere, the fate of local news and the local newspaper, news and information in the networked future.

This is the third in a series of forums that asks the question Will Newspapers Survive? Also in the series: The Emergence of Citizens' Media (Sept. 19), News, Information and the Wealth of Networks (Sept. 21).

Series co-sponsor: Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation


Jerome Armstrong is the founder of Netroots.com, creator of the political blog MyDD.com and author with Markos Zúniga of Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics.

Pablo Boczkowski is associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and the author of Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers.

Dante Chinni is senior research associate for the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a media columnist for the Christian Science Monitor.

David Thorburn is professor of literature and director of the Communications Forum at MIT. He is the author of Conrad’s Romanticism, and, most recently, co-editor of Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition.


A podcast of Why Newspapers Matter is now available.


A webcast of Why Newspapers Matter is now available.


By Marie Thibault

[This is an edited summary, and not a verbatim transcript. A summary of Why Newspapers Matter is also available on the Over the River blog written by Greg Peverill-Conti.]

David Thorburn: Perhaps the title of this forum should have been “Do Newspapers Matter?” instead of “Why Newspapers Matter?” But I hope not entirely out of nostalgia, I chose the latter. Journalists still seem to come to their profession with a sense of mission and a love for the work. Will their successors in cyberspace?

I feel our conversation so far has been too positive or unqualified in its enthusiasm for online news and blogs. The visionaries or utopians on our panels have been more compelling than the skeptics. But we need a bit of skepticism. We need greater vigilance especially toward our vocabulary, to the way words thought merely to describe a technology or a medium may also be implicit endorsements. For example, words such as “participatory,” “interactive,” and “democratic” have been used to describe digital technologies. Does it then follow than a technology less “participatory” such as a newspaper is inherently inferior? Not all experiences are improved by an increase of “participation” by audiences or users.

Newspapers offer more than just information. They organize the world each day in a coherent way, and even to choose not to read a particular article is to make contact with and become aware of another angle or perspective on the world. It's important to consider these aspects of newspapers when debating what their loss might mean.

Finally, there is an overtly political dimension to the role of newspapers. They operate under protection of the First Amendment, unlike other forms of communication. Also, newspapers are traditionally independent political observers and their loss might be damaging to the function of a democratic government. We need to ask these questions as we enter and are carried into our digitized and networked future.

Jerome Armstrong

Jerome Armstrong: I don't spend much time watching television or reading newspapers. I used to scour the political news in the newspapers around election time, but now I turn to the blogosphere for polling information and opinions before the elections. Blogs were a response to the absence of progressive voices in the established media.

There are a couple of events that led up to the rise of the progressive democratic blogosphere: the Florida election debacle in 2000, the Democrats' midterm vote to allow Bush to occupy Iraq, the phenomenon of Howard Dean, the rise of Netroots, and recently, the more decentralized efforts of the local blogosphere. Readers of the liberal blog ad network are very heavily involved in politics. The relationship between blogs and traditional media is symbiotic. Bloggers feed off traditional media and write their opinions. Journalists are starting to go to blogs to read about breaking stories because blogs are a place for people to try out opinions. Blogs are even sometimes syndicated into newspapers.

Blogs will not cause the downfall of newspapers, and people will not go to blogs to get their news. But the overriding question is whether newspapers will be able to customize their content as compellingly as online media has.

Pablo Boczkowski

Pablo Boczkowski: “When More Media Equals Less News” is the first publication that has emerged from my ongoing research project. I've examined the two largest newspapers in Buenos Aires, Argentina : Clarin and La Nacion . Looking at the front page of both on one day, they had stories in each of the following categories: national government, international, local, and health/science. Some of these stories even shared similar spots on the front page of each paper. This is part of a larger trend. There is now an intense content overlap in media. My research shows that, in Argentina at least, use of the Web has led to a growing convergence of content. My research aims to measure the role certain technological practices play in this convergence.

A possible conclusion from my work is this: Newspapers matter less because they have increasingly turned hard news into a commodity. They are losing their power to set the agenda and the ability to contribute to a diverse public sphere.

In Argentina, about 25 percent of adults have Internet. The newspaper industry there is large and has a relatively stable share of the advertising pie. Clarin has 36 percent of the national market and is the top online newspaper. La Nacion has 14 percent of the national market and is ranked second online. Infobae only has a one percent share of the national market, but has become a very strong player online in the last few years.

For my research project, I looked at the front pages of the two print newspapers over ten years and the top nine stories for the three online papers over a 24-hour period. For the first five years, online newspapers just put print content online, but in 2001 they started printing more breaking news. In 2004, they started doing this more aggressively. This made a difference for print newspapers. One in three hard news stories were shared between these print newspapers before 2004-2005, but that year, one in two hard new stories were shared.

Public affairs stories were affected most by this convergence. There is a very dense web of shared content between these top two newspapers. This shows that what matters is what people do with technology. The first five years of coexistence with online news didn't affect print, but once breaking news started to be printed online, print content was affected. Before I did this study, I spent nine months inside an online newsroom. I found that monitoring of the competition has increased and has become obsessive. Each newspaper feels it must cover the news that the other paper has, and throughout the day the news in each becomes increasingly the same. Some journalists and editors describe this monitoring as “unavoidable.”

To conclude, my research leads me to wonder whether newspapers might matter less because they've commodified the news and so reduced their diversity and individuality. This isn't just an Argentinian issue, either. The State of the News Media 2006 describes a similar situation in the United States, observing that “the new paradox of American journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories.”

Dante Chinni

Dante Chinni: Our media consumption is increasingly complicated and we've become omnivores. We go everywhere for our news. This is the best time to be a news consumer because you can do whatever you want. But on the other hand, it is difficult too, because we have to monitor ourselves in order to prevent ourselves from overdosing on junk food or news.

I think the form of assignment desks, reporters, and editors will survive but will exist alongside other media forms. I think that newspapers will survive, but I don't know what they'll look like, if they'll be on paper, what they'll cover, or how they'll fund that coverage. Newspapers are expensive and their delivery isn't that efficient. Another challenge is metropolitan sprawl, making it hard to cover local news on the edges. Though there has been a very slight increase in newspaper revenues recently, in the long term, revenues are down. This is because readership is down and the most we can hope for is a steady one percent decrease each year in readership. We cannot realistically hope for anything better than this.

The online newspaper, while it allows more eyes to see newspaper content, is killing print in terms of classified ads. Subscription revenues are also lost when people just read newspapers online for free. It will be extremely difficult to make up for the revenue losses newspapers have already experienced, so these are hard times for all in the newspaper industry.

Why should we care? Newspapers are critical because:

1: They have the most reporters on the streets. Beat reporters have a certain amount of expertise.

2: Blogs can deal with large news items, but they can't break large stories. Bloggers don't have access to some of the necessary information and also don't have the time to wait around each day for this information. In most cases, maintaining a blog is not a blogger's professional occupation.

3: Mainstream reporters try to get the story right; usually don't try to spin it in favor of one side or another. Bloggers, on the other hand, often want to see a particular outcome. Blogs can provide us with an electronic version of The Nation or The National Review, but this can't be the only way we get our news.

4: The real strength of a newspaper is its collective knowledge. One blogger is certain to know more about one particular topic than the newspaper, but that blogger does not know as much about many other topics that the newspapers covers.

Remember, the delivery system isn't the most important thing. We need to find an economic model to make all of this information collection possible.

Boczkowski: Online news sites are making good money, but their size and volume is not optimal for large companies that are used to drawing in large revenues.

Armstrong: I think that the commodified news is the perfect example for critics who feel their viewpoints and interests aren't represented. There are two types of authority figures: those who agree with your viewpoints and share your experiences and those who are held up by society as part of the information flow. Newspapers are included in the second group, and people are turning to the first group more and more. So, newspapers are being deconstructed more.

Chinni: In order to get all the information the newspaper has, you'd need to go to a blog about politics, a blog about Asian affairs, health care, etc. Of course with specific interests, blogs serve as supplement. It would be entirely too time-consuming to find all the news using blogs.

Question: Of course no blog can replace the Wall Street Journal, but its online format is replacing the paper format. It seems that online newspapers will replace print newspapers.

Chinni: I do think the newspaper industry is moving that way and it's just a matter of finding a way to pay for it. There will be some great convergence of video, newspaper, and online down the road.

Armstrong: What's going to disappear if print newspapers are no longer around is the structured format of how the news is presented. Online news is going to become more and more customized in content and with ads targeted to specific readers. The one-size-fits-all format of print newspapers is going to disappear and I don't think there's any way to avoid this.

Boczkowski: When newspapers make a transition online, the content is not exactly the same. Most of the news online is consumed during work hours. Readers have very little time and their attention is divided, so they want quick bits of news. This means that news organizations need to churn out the news very quickly. Consequently, production time is very short, so what stories are covered and the ways the stories are put together are different.

Question: Google news feed is very much like skimming a newspaper. We still pick out the stories that we're drawn to and interested in, much like we do with a print newspaper. So then, exactly what is a newspaper?

Chinni: A newspaper is an organization full of people who put out a product that you read everyday. Google news feed depends on the old technology of newspapers because it takes the same stories and presents them in a different format.

Armstrong: Yes, Google news feed could not exist without traditional journalists. But Google and other news aggregators aren't supporting these traditional journalists financially, so what will keep newspapers profitable?

Boczkowski: In addition to being an organization, a newspaper also specializes in editorial judgment. On the other hand, Google uses an algorithm to select what news it delivers. This is mixed at some newspapers: Le Monde uses software to help editors decide when to alternate stories online. This partnership between human judgment and software analysis is part of the transformation involved in the transition from print to online.

Question: How would bringing newspapers under the control of private companies or local investors affect the pressures they are facing now? Would it give them breathing room?

Boczkowski: That's a very complicated question, but the critical role of the capital markets in the U.S. means there is a very short term view of performance. The traditional media no longer owns the biggest chunk of the information environment and because newspapers have receded from their position in the marketplace: they have much less control in the information environment.

Question: I care about interface. Reading a newspaper, I learn about the opera even though I don't have a particular interest in opera because I am pulled in by a great lead or beautiful photographs. This doesn't happen with online newspapers. I worry about the world getting smaller with this loss of serendipity.

Chinni: I think this applies to news directly because news shapes our realities. If we all get different news, this affects our democracy a great deal. We start debating things that should be facts and that's a problem. There is a loss of serendipity with online news because we are going to seek out what we want to know.

Armstrong: Different realities are definitely created in politics, but this at least means that more people are participating in politics.

Boczkowski: Your concern about serendipity is a legitimate one because 50 to 60 percent of all clicks are on the front page.

Alex Beam: Jerome, could you talk to us about Netroots, progressive politics, and the Internet? I'm especially interested in the situation of Ned Lamont in Connecticut, who won the democratic primary because of the blogosphere, but now may lose in the general election, despite (and maybe partly because of) his support by the liberal bloggers.

Armstrong: Ned Lamont's victory showed that the progressive movement online is gaining the power to affect primary elections, but it is probably not strong enough to affect the general elections, which has voters from other parties. Lately, more local blogs have popped up and are helping people become more involved in local politics.

Question: I used to do research on customized news and I still wonder how it is possible to define an audience. Everyone has different a background and interests, so how is it possible to really target an audience?

Armstrong: Part of the problem of traditional media, as we've pointed out, is that it hasn't given people what they are interested in. They have advocated what I view as right-wing propaganda because of external pressure and have become commodified.

Chinni: I don't think they put stories on front page for audience. Editors use their expertise to determine why each story is important. The front page is a collection of what the editors consider to be the biggest, most news-worthy stories.

Boczkowski: When editors think of their audience, they project their own desires or beliefs into the audience. Newspapers don't exist to tell us what we want to know, but instead, what we should know. Online, monitoring refines the editor's perception of what the audience is most interested in. But seeing this everyday creates real conflict between professional values, public service and what the audience wants.

Question: Do editors stop exercising judgment when they start homogenizing? Another question is, in the blogosphere, how do we determine who the experts are?

Armstrong: The experts are basically known through their credibility, but much more skepticism exists online now. I think that although blogs have replaced newspapers, they are still gatekeepers.

Chinni: There will always be gatekeepers. The Argentine study relates most closely in the U.S. to local television. Those who work in local television watch other newscasts closely, review ratings, and then the content becomes more and more alike. This is awful news judgment and it will be very troubling if online news becomes like this.

Armstrong: If the Argentine newspapers had more competition from online media, wouldn't they be discouraged from replicating their content? If they continued to homogenize their content, it would leave a lot of area for online media to capitalize on.

Boczkowski: Editorial judgment is always a collective judgment. Now, collective judgment has expanded to include the competitors. It is easier to access information from other news services and as production cycles have gotten smaller, these news services have become more helpful and important. I don't know if the number of resources will increase with the diversity of the population and number of people online, but the limited data I have shows the opposite.

Chinni: Of course, I hope and think Jerome is right, but advertising dollars will ultimately determine this because advertisers target a certain population.

Question: How much freedom has the online media offered in geographical areas where the mainstream media is censored?

Chinni: I recently wrote a column in The Christian Science Monitor about a blogger from China who wrote for China Daily . Camera phones are used to take photos and then these are posted on their Web site. They choose what goes on the front page and when it comes to controversial topics, the government had not issued rules, but had just warned him to be careful. Photos of illegal activities could not be posted on the front page, but they could be posted on personal Web pages. The number of photo submissions China Daily was receiving was increasing dramatically.

By the time my column came out, the website had been taken down by order of the government. But once they let in the camera phones, some of those pictures are always going to get out. Governmental control can't stop everything and this is the best part of citizen media.

Thorburn: Are there any particular characteristics of American and democratic journalism that absolutely need to be protected and continued?

Dante Chinni, Jerome Armstrong,  Pablo Boczkowski, David Thorburn

Armstrong: I think it's important to keep in mind that people are exposed to many more different viewpoints when reading content online as compared to reading newspapers. For example, there may be some regions and cultures that accept creationism as fact, and the newspapers of that region might reflect that. However, when these readers go online to look at creationism websites, they will be exposed to content that opposes creationism and so will be exposed to other opinions or facts in that way.

Boczkowski: There are different relations between journalism and the state. There are different kinds of democracy and the government and corporations usually try to control the press. An autonomous press tries to monitor this by providing a different product and doing deeper investigation. So, homogenized content does not provide a different product and then the press starts to give up its role in a democratic society.

Armstrong: Earlier this year there was legislation introduced to the Federal Election Commission that tried to label all partisan political blogs as contributions in-kind, but it was eventually thrown out. This was the right move because bloggers are no different from any person talking about their opinions. There should be no limits on their activity.

A question for Dante: Is the access the press has been granted because of position, rights, and objectivity; or is it because of the audience and power they have?

Chinni: Ultimately, it is granted because of the First Amendment right they have and because it is felt that someone needs to tell the country what is going on in government. People get paid to do this job and not everybody can have the same access they do. I don't think it's because they are unbiased because writers for The Nation or other similar magazines get press credentials as well.

Armstrong: But I don't think this access can be separated from how much power and audience the magazine or newspaper has.

Chinni: Yes, I think that's fair, there is a constituency for the media that gives it some measure of power.