As the Internet drives newspapers out of business, many of the nation's most seasoned journalists are running for the exits. Diminished circulation, fewer classifieds, and a languid advertising market have siphoned the revenue that has long subsidized the business of print journalism, leaving editors struggling to meet employee salaries.
But the migration of news to the Internet is more than just a threat to the livelihoods of those who cover a beat. If, as Arthur Miller once surmised, a "good newspaper is a nation talking to itself," how will a world with fewer newspapers keep the conversation going?
The explosion of online news presents the world of journalism with a certain paradox: Newspapers are dying even as the demand for news may be at an all-time high. Discussion about how to "monetize" that demand--ensuring that those who consume news compensate those who have produced it—is the subject of a bevy of speculation. The Associated Press is threatening to sue websites that use its content without license. Others have proposed that readers pay a miniscule fee each time they click on an article.
But sometimes lost in that debate is the fact that newspapers provide more than a simple reporting of recent events. They serve, as Miller alluded, as an extension of the public square. Beyond recording the first draft of history, professional journalists are charged with gathering facts from a cross section of the neighborhoods they serve, and then distributing that information to the whole of the community.
Today, consumers of news have the luxury of patronizing online news sources focused on the subject matters that interest them most and imbued with the outlook they share. Those who used to skip to the sports page now simply click to ESPN.com. Those who read the opinion page can now click to RealClearPolitics.com.
But more than that, those who share a progressive view of the world can gather news at HuffingtonPost.com, while their conservative counterparts head to FoxNews.com. And in almost every circumstance, readers can connect to people of common interest and like mind, linking together communities that might never have found one another without the Internet.
No doubt each of those clicks deals a blow to the traditional business of making newspapers. But they also—in most cases unintentionally—strike at the common discourse. As individuals choose their source of news, they likely select reports delivered from a standpoint that confirms their preconceived narrative of world events. Without a common conception of the world as it is, it becomes more difficult to have a thoughtful conversation across ideologies.
But more than that, the decay of the newspaper industry eats away at the connection that individuals have with their neighbors, and their understanding of the challenges facing those who live outside of earshot, on the other side of the interstate. You might have been solely interested in getting commentary on last night's baseball game, but if you buy the newspaper, you're likely to peruse the front page. You may simply have wanted to check cinema schedules, but you're likely to notice a headline that indicates that a local elementary school is laying off a portion of its teaching corps.
Even if we dismiss consternation about the move from newspaper to online media as a simple exercise in nostalgia—or the natural evolution of journalism's business model—we ought not ignore the broader implications. Journalists are not simply purveyors of the latest scuttlebutt. For all the complaints that they reveal bias one way or the other, they are charged with maintaining a touchstone for community awareness, and their medium serves as a way to bridge what would otherwise be Balkanized corners of our broader community. Should news sources cease to connect pockets of readers, we will need to think of ways to maintain those ties by bringing people together through a national service requirement, or redrawing district boundaries to maximize civic engagement, rather than incumbent protection.
Marc Dunkelman is a vice president of the Democratic Leadership Council.