As The New Republic imploded last week, the vanity of its editors and former editors was on full display when they claimed — on Facebook — that, “The promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”
The magazine’s Wikipedia entry already captures the spirit of national mourning by referring to TNR in the past tense.
But did a publication with a circulation of 50,000 really have such a pivotal role in the life of the nation?
Are today’s media moguls — Chris Hughes, Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, et al — any worse than old ones like William Randolph Hearst, Rupert Murdoch, and Ted Turner?
The death of journalism can be overstated if it’s mostly about the loss of self-importance for those whose words once reliably became enshrined in the permanence of print — writers whose words now float freely as digital ephemera, all too easily lost.
For writing to be print-worthy, implies a certain value independent of whether it’s being read, yet this value is much more culturally ascribed than inherent.
The written word, through its permanence, is invested with the legal power of ownership.
The demise of printing press ownership, since print no longer requires paper, has reduced the value of journalism as it has expanded its availability.
Peter Beinart et al write:
The New Republic cannot be merely a “brand.” It has never been and cannot be a “media company” that markets “content.” Its essays, criticism, reportage, and poetry are not “product.” It is not, or not primarily, a business.
I’m with them in spirit — kind of.
Journalism should go in pursuit of truth — not profit. But those who dedicate themselves to this higher calling while also having the comfort of receiving a regular pay check, are being disingenuous about their lack of interest in money. The only reason they haven’t had to care too much about where the money comes from is because until now it has conveniently kept showing up in their bank accounts.
When an increasing number of Americans reach news on their phones, and 30% find their news through Facebook, so-called “legacy” journalism is over, at least as an independently constructed and distributed cultural good. So the question for Hughes, and would-be billionaire saviors like him, is what’s next.
“I think we have seen a number of things happen in the last 18 months which are moving things along,” Hughes told me, “from the ‘innovation’ report at the New York Times, what Ezra Klein is doing with Vox.com, the longform journalism that BuzzFeed has started to produce, and even Medium – which on the face of it is bringing a community around a spectrum from very serious longform journalism to bloggers and other diverse voices.”
Still, in rattling off the journalistic competition he admires, Hughes audibly winced over including BuzzFeed, which has become a Pavlovian stand-in through which the uninformed – even among former TNR staff – encapsulate the idea of “declining standards” in journalism. But BuzzFeed has achieved what every journalism organisation needs to: Buzzfeed is successful because of the internet, rather than in spite of it.