Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why Newspapers Can Go Away

Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood's most recent podcast struck a nerve with me. They go on for a period of time about Craig's List and the effect it has had on newspapers. Joel in particular tries to argue that Craig's List has essentially killed off the public good of investigative journalism, and by refusing to cash out on Craig's List in some way, has not returned the public with anything other than the marginal usefulness of free classified ads.

Normally I think very highly of Joel and his opinions, but in this instance, I think he has completely missed the boat. Jeff tries to poke holes in his argument, but he didn't articulate the argument that I most strongly feel....

Investigative journalism is now a distributed affair, and no longer needs the legwork of the newspapers that Joel alludes to. On a side note, I want to point out that the linking to eachother that Joel accuses bloggers of is quite prevalent in newspapers as well... aren't popular Associated Press articles picked up and run nationally all the time?

I just want to point out one recent case study to illustrate my point... the shooting of Oscar Grant on New Years Day in an Oakland BART station.

I admit, I haven't followed up on how the case against the officer panned out (or if it is even through yet), but the point remains that something like excessive police force cannot go unnoticed in todays world. We don't need newspapers to do the legwork anymore because the ubiquity of the web, combined with a computer in almost everyone's pocket in the form of a smart phone capable of snapping a photo, shooting a video, or recording a conversation and then posting it online immediately has put the power of investigative journalism into the hands of everyone, everywhere.

If something corrupt happens within earshot (or eyesight) of someone, there is a much greater chance nowadays that someone is listening and could easily publish the wrongdoings within minutes. This is not to say that we can do without real journalists going out and finding corruption and shining the light on it, but I firmly believe the Internet and technology is our salvation, not the newspapers.

Jeff, I think you are right that we are in a transition, and the spotlight on the bugs under the rock is being lit by everyone now.


Anonymous said...

Reporting on something you can immediately take a picture or video of is a very different thing than investigative journalism. Equating the two is effectively making a straw man of the opposing argument.

Noah Gibbs said...

Sure, but how much actual investigative journalism still goes on these days? We've got what, the New York Times and occasionally the Wall Street Journal doing it semi-regularly, with a few other publications occasionally chiming in?

I agree, professional investigative journalists are good. I'd argue that the newspapers aren't doing terribly well on that front either. One or two reasonable forums for that online could replace the very small amount of it that finds its home in newspapers quite quickly.

The trick, as ever, is figuring out how to charge appropriately for it. But if you're paying just a few investigative journalists and the cost of publishing online instead of on paper, it's at least an easier amount of money to come up with.