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Thursday, May 21, 2009

What are Newspapers For ?

Looks like they are in trouble. I'm worried, but I'm more worried about how relatively unworried I am. In a recent Op-Ed Frank Rich repeated the best argument for newspapers -- they are needed for investigative journalism.

While it may be unfortunate that a key tool of investigative journalism -- the anonymous source -- is usually used for the opposite of it's original purpose -- I'd agree that anonymous interviews with whistle blowers are very valuable. Do we need newspapers to get that information ?

Last I checked the consensus among journalists, it seemed to be agreed that Seymour Martin Hersh is the worlds number one top investigative journalist. He writes for The New Yorker not a newspaper.

I'd say Marcy Wheeler is giving him a good run for his money. OK actually she is actually after your money. Please donate here.

I'd say the key point is that whistle blowers want to blow whistles. I'd guess that if they can't contact a newspaper journalist, but can contact a blogger, then the whistle will be blown all the same.

Once upon a time it was very useful to have extremely well known institutions which publish news and protect anonymity. That way you knew where to go to get the news out. Now we have google. It is possible to find out how to blow a whistle even if one didn't happen to meet Bob Woodward at the White House. One find out which bloggers have not yet burned a source. You can contact them by e-mail from your account and negotiate anonymity.

The only problems are that TV doesn't usually pick up on blogs and that politicians tend to snear at them. These are not problems with the new medium, but with deference to the old media.

There are many reporters in the USA who I trust as a reader and would trust if I had a whistle to blow. More of them write for blogs than for newspapers.

Now professional print journalists do a lot of work developing sources who are not whistle blowers -- not people who really really want to get information out but would get in trouble with their superiors if they publicly stated it. I think this is extremely damaging to the national discussion. I don't think any useful social function is performed by being the one through whom the administration leaks. They will get their talking points out one way or another. Institutions which reward people who get the leaks create incentives to pay for the leaks with unjustified anonymity and favorable slant. That is a pure social loss in exchange for nothing.

I am writing this post, because I just decided that I think a similar logic applies to legitimate whistle blowers. If, as I guess but can't know, they want to get the story out, they can. If newspapers get out of the investigative reporting business, they will still be able to get the story out.

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