When The Brookings Institution asked Robert Kaiser to write an essay about the state of journalism, they asked that the last section include some solutions.
“And I had to tell them when I was finished that there would be no such section,” said Kaiser, who worked for more than 50 years at The Washington Post and retired in February. Kaiser is also the author of several books, including “The News About The News.” His essay for Brookings, which came out Thursday, is entitled “The Bad News About the News.”
In several chapters he looks both back and ahead at American journalism.
“I have to say that that process made me less optimistic than I had been before it began,” Kaiser said in a phone interview.
It’s misleading, Kaiser said, to look at all the great journalists and platforms and what they’re producing online and think journalism is in good shape. There’s still no real business model.
From his essay:
Despite two decades of trying, no one has found a way to make traditional news-gathering sufficiently profitable to assure its future survival. Serious readers of America’s most substantial news media may find this description at odds with their daily experience. After all, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post still provide rich offerings of good journalism every morning, and they have been joined by numerous online providers of both opinion and news—even of classic investigative reporting. Digital publications employ thousands of reporters and editors in new and sometimes promising journalistic enterprises. Is this a disaster?
Of course not—yet. But today’s situation is probably misleading. The laws of economics cannot be ignored or repealed. Nor can the actuarial tables. Only about a third of Americans under 35 look at a newspaper even once a week, and the percentage declines every year. A large portion of today’s readers of the few remaining good newspapers are much closer to the grave than to high school. Today’s young people skitter around the Internet like ice skaters, exercising their short attention spans by looking for fun and, occasionally, seeking out serious information. Audience taste seems to be changing, with the result that among young people particularly there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided, which included national, foreign and local news, business news, cultural news and criticism, editorials and opinion columns, sports and obituaries, lifestyle features, and science news.
“I believe that the crucial factor in the future of journalism of the kind that democracy depends on is the survival of a small but vibrant group of really first class institutions that have shared values and traditions and the capacity to train and cultivate the next generation capable of doing this work,” Kaiser said.
The kind of investigative journalism that comes out of the Post, the Times and the Journal is hard work, he said. “It’s not something any old blogger can walk through the door and do.”
Long term, what happens if a new business model isn’t found and those papers fold?
“My pessimism is dependent, I should confess freely, on my theory that if we don’t have a New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, we’re a much lesser place than we were with them.”
Now for the good news. Kaiser does see a few things that are working. The first is the ProPublica model.
“They’re a fourth pillar in that universe with the other three,” he said. “However, it depends on the will of people to pay for it as an act of charity.”
And that, he said, isn’t really a business model.
The other comes from Post owner Jeff Bezos, and Kaiser calls it the angel investor solution. For someone with Bezos’ money, owning the Post probably costs him the equivalent of lunch money.
The problem is, Kaiser said, Bezos is competitive.
“He won’t like idea that The Washington Post lives because he props it up. He would much prefer, I’m sure, to invent the new business model and, God willing, he’ll do that.”
“That’s good because policy is traditionally short changed in American journalism.”
There are also local sites, including Voice of San Diego, that provide a service to their communities.
“It’s entirely plausible to me that my doomsday scenario is accurate but won’t be seen to be happening for some number of years,” Kaiser said. “That’s possible. It’s also possible it could happen much faster.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story used the word invest instead of invent in a quote. Read more