Since then, of course, the newspaper industry has consolidated dramatically, a trend that’s accelerated in the past decade. But in practical terms, just the opposite has happened. After all, who cares if there were 15,000 tiny newspapers 100 years ago? If you were an actual person who lived in the actual town of Cerro Gordo in the actual year 1900, your only real choice was between two newspapers, each with four pages of boilerplate provided by a big-city daily and four pages printed by a local press, delivered to your doorstep once a week. And that was it.
Thirty years ago things were better, but in practice most people still had pretty limited access to news even then: one or two newspapers, three TV networks, and a few national newsmagazines.
And today? The number of independent media companies may be a fraction of what it was 30 or 100 years ago, but for no more than the price of an AOL account we have instant entrÃ©e to every single one of them. So while there may be half as many American correspondents in Moscow as there were three decades ago, back then I had access to no more than two or three of them. Today I have access to all of them. In practical terms, there’s a far larger assortment of news sources available to me than 30 years ago.
As a full-time blogger, I confront this every day. In the course of a single month, on just one blog, I gather—and comment on—news from 10 to 20 American newspapers; four or five overseas papers; transcripts of radio shows, TV news, and chat shows; and at least a dozen magazines. I am awash in news.
In a very real sense, this makes blogs a powerful antidote to media consolidation. If you read a few well-chosen blogs daily, you’ll find links and commentary to a far wider variety of news sources than even the best-read news consumer of a mere decade ago. You may not personally read the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, but the blogosphere does, and if any one of these publications has something original to say on the news of the day, blogs will compile their insights for you, complete with links to the original sources.
However, this is where our initial paradox circles back on its own tail. One of the most valuable things I do as a blogger is read five or six news accounts of the same event and then present to my readers the bits and pieces that illuminate one another (something the old media almost never does because professional reporters—still hostage to a scoop-based mentality their readers no longer care about—are loath to even admit the existence of their competitors). This form of blogging helps mask the reality of media consolidation by searching out different takes on the news, but if consolidation continues apace, eventually even blog aggregation won’t be able to hide what’s happening.
It also highlights why blogs—or “citizen journalism” to its most enthusiastic cheerleaders—will never replace the mainstream media (a term so prevalent it has its own IM-like abbreviation: msm). For all the hype over blogosphere triumphs such as the takedown of Dan Rather or the almost instant posting of cell-phone photos of the 2004 tsunami, the plain fact is that very few blogs do sustained original reporting of their own. It’s also why the endless debate over whether blogs are better or worse than the msm is pointless. In the same way that newspapers excel at broad coverage of breaking news, TV excels at images, magazines excel at long analytic pieces, and talk radio excels at ranting screeds, blogs also excel at certain things. Trying to compare them to “journalism” is a mug’s game, like trying to figure out if a beanbag is really a chair. Who cares? Beanbags are great for certain forms of sitting down and lousy at others.
In fact, blogs and the msm are symbiotic. Blogs at their best improve on msm reporting both by holding reporters to account and by latching onto complex topics and talking about them in a conversational style that professional reporters just can’t match. But the blogosphere would shrivel and die without a steady diet of news reporting from paid professionals.
Which leads us to the dirty little secret of newsgathering: Serious, daily, national reporting is overwhelmingly the preserve of a tiny handful of big-city newspapers with large staffs and worldwide bureaus. Of these, the Los Angeles Times is under pressure to downsize by its parent company, as is the Washington Post. Knight Ridder was recently purchased by McClatchy. And every big-metro daily in the country, including the still-independent New York Times, is under relentless pressure from deteriorating circulation, poor demographics, loss of classified ad revenue to the Internet, and the decline of urban department stores—storms that private owners might have weathered but institutional investors have no stomach for.
When these dailies succumb, there’s really nothing to replace them. Television news does very little in-depth daily reporting, most radio is hopeless, and blogs simply don’t have the resources. Magazines do some good work but come out only weekly or monthly. So while the raw numbers of media consolidation may be the most dramatic symptom of the problem, it’s the small number of national dailies at the core of today’s msm that ought to be the biggest cause for concern. And when they go? For the most part, blogs will go with them. Enjoy them while you can.