The Glory Days of American Journalism

Ignore the doomsayers: The news-reading public has never had more and better information at their fingertips.

A newspaper stack outside the Long Island Railroad in New York, Sept. 18, 2007.

The newspaper business may not be getting easier, but is that bad for consumers?

Photo by Mike Groll/AP

American news media has never been in better shape. That’s just common sense. Almost anything you’d want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips. You don’t need to take my analysis of the Cyprus bank bailout crisis as the last word on the matter: You can quickly and easily find coverage from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Economist. Or if you don’t want to see your Cyprus news filtered through an America/British lens, you can check out the take of distinguished Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis on his blog. Reuters created an interactive feature that lets you try out different formulae for making the Cypriot haircut work. A pseudonymous London-based fund manager using the name Pawel Morski has offered vital, deeply informed coverage on Twitter and his WordPress site. You can watch a Bloomberg TV interview on the situation with native Cypriot and former Federal Reserve adviser Athanasios Orphanides at your leisure.  

Best of all, today’s media ecology lets you add depth and context to the news. Several sources on Twitter recommended to me a 2008 Perry Anderson article in the London Review of Books about the broader sweep of post-independence Cypriot history.* Paul Krugman reminds us of the larger issue of small island nations serving as offshore banking hubs and the dilemmas this poses for global financial regulation. He also offers a link to a lengthy IMF report on Cyprus’ economy.

Yet essentially none of this bounty is reflected in the deeply pessimistic latest edition of the Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media Report. Pew’s overview makes no mention of the Web’s speed, range, and depth, or indeed any mention at all of audience access to information as an important indicator of the health of journalism. Instead we lead with a lamentation that “in 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies, and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Layoffs of newsroom personnel at newspapers, Pew reports, have “put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.”

This viewpoint is not wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken. It’s a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.

Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more. Indeed, one thing the Pew report correctly emphasizes is that (as we at Slate are well aware) it’s hard to make lots of money selling ads online. But it’s hard primarily for the same reason that the Internet is such a bonanza for readers: There’s lots of competition and lots of stuff to read. A traditional newspaper used to compete with a single cross-town rival. Time would compete with Newsweek. Time doesn’t compete with Newsweek anymore: Instead it competes with every single English-language website on the planet. It’s tough, but it merely underscores the extent of the enormous advances in productivity that are transforming the industry.

The recent improvements in news distribution are astonishing. You don’t need to go to a specialty shop to find out-of-town newspapers or foreign magazines. Just open a browser. You can check on Israeli news sites when a new government is formed or during an American presidential visit and ignore them the rest of the year. The Internet also brings the enormous back catalog of journalism to life. That five-year-old Anderson essay on Cyprus is still relevant today. Recalling that he wrote a book on the island, I looked up an old Christopher Hitchens column on Cyprus yesterday evening.

And of course digital technology also makes it dramatically easier to produce the news. Charts and graphs can be manufactured and published in minutes. Public sector data, academic research, and think tank reports are at your fingertips, instead of gathering dust on random shelves. Email, instant messaging, and mobile phones make it easier to contact sources and collaborate with editors. Last but by no means least, websites don’t “run out of space.” We try not to publish bad articles, but we don’t decline to publish good ones on the grounds that they don’t fit. We don’t arbitrarily cut words to conform to a page-layout concept.

In other words, any individual journalist working today can produce much more than our predecessors could in 1978. And the audience can essentially read all of our output. Not just today’s output either. Yesterday’s and last week’s and last month’s and last year’s and so forth. To the extent that the industry is suffering, it’s suffering from a crisis of productivity.

For people trying to make a living in journalism, the problems are real enough. But from a social viewpoint, these are excellent problems to have. America’s real problems come in sectors like health care and higher education that haven’t been transformed by productivity-enhancing technology. Pew notes with alarm that just over 30 percent of poll respondents “have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.” Phrased more optimistically, in a competitive marketplace content producers who don’t meet their audiences’ needs lose market share to those who do. Middling or below-average hospitals and colleges don’t really have to worry about losing out to rapidly expanding high-quality performers or new entrants. The resulting upward spiral of prices has been a huge drag on economic growth, middle class incomes, and overall prosperity. Sadly, news consumption has never been a large enough part of the typical person’s consumption basket to make all that much difference to the big-picture economy. But make no mistake, despite business difficulties and cutbacks, the American news consumer has never had it so good.

Correction, March 26, 2013: The original version of this article wrongly stated that Perry Anderson’s articled appeared in the New York Review of Books. (Return.)