Unstable Journalism

The old widower, a retired jockey, lives at the edge of town. He keeps his horse in a detached stable on his three-quarter-acre lot. One day, a delinquent kid comes along, lights a match, and sets the decades old structure afire. The horse escapes unhurt, but its shelter burns to the ground.

“Money’s tight, but I’ll need to rebuild quickly,” the old man tells his neighbor. “Winter is coming on quick.”

The next evening, the neighbor attends a City Council meeting, intending to take advantage of the televised public comments. “I’m here to let everyone in the community know that my elderly neighbor, a World War II veteran, lost his horse stable yesterday night when an arsonist set it afire,” he says. “The bank downtown has been kind enough to set up a fund to help him rebuild before winter. If anyone wants to help, I encourage you to visit their Web site or drop by anytime this week.”

Thanks to a generous local businessman, enough money is quickly raised, but before a contractor is found the old man gets a visit from a city code enforcement worker, who also attended the City Council meeting. “I’m sorry to inform you that rebuilding your stable isn’t an option,” he tells the old man. “15 years ago the City Council restricted horse stables to lots one acre or larger. Your old stable was grandfathered in, but now that it’s gone we can’t permit you to build a new one.”

“But that’s absurd,” the old man said. “My stable wasn’t bothering anyone all these years, my neighbors don’t mind if I rebuild, and I merely want my property back the way it was before the arsonist damaged it.”

“The law is the law,” the municipal worker replied. The old man paid a $100 fee to appeal the decision, but the planning commission, advised by city staff, declined to overrule them, and the old man couldn’t afford another $500 to appeal their decision to the City Council, which didn’t meet again for another three weeks anyway. With bills for boarding his horse adding up, he weighed whether he’d have to sell it.

Luckily for the old man, a local newspaper columnist got wind of the story, the managing editor gave it good play, and a staff photographer took a sharp photograph. A dozen angry citizens called City Hall, agitating on his behalf. The pressure died down after a couple days, however, and all would’ve been lost but for the editorial board. It wrote about the case three times over the next week, keeping the story alive and spreading it to new readers; the pressure didn’t have an effect initially, but it eventually prompted the mayor to waive the fee for appealing the decision, and to schedule a special session of the City Council. “Tonight’s meeting may seem a small matter,” the newspaper editorialized the next day, “but an old man’s happiness is at stake. And something more too. The only people with a stake in this poorly conceived rule are bureaucrats who prize their inflexible designs above common sense and the popular will. Let’s show them whose community this is, and whose interests we value.”

It is possible to imagine the story I’ve just told playing out without a newspaper. A single neighbor might post video of the fire to YouTube, start a Facebook group to fundraise for a new stable, and blog indignantly when city officials refused to grant a building permit. So Julian Sanchez is right. “Whether ‘newspapers’ survive (either as ink-on-wood-pulp or as institutions) is of no real intrinsic importance.”

He goes on: “The question is whether vital forms of journalism will get done.” But that isn’t the only question. What if the YouTube video gets posted, but an audience never finds it? What if the townspeople who are rich and sympathetic to the widower are also too old to be on Facebook, so that sufficient funds are not raised even though more people in total are reached? What if the indignant blogging is done by someone who is so poor a writer that no one is moved by his words? Or perhaps the writing is better than anything that ever appeared in a staff editorial at the defunct daily newspaper, but none of the half-dozen community blogs that sprung up after its downfall possess even a twentieth of its ability to pressure city officials.

Whether newspapers survive isn’t of intrinsic value — and lucky too, since so many are failing. But mitigating what’s being lost as they fold is more complicated than merely making sure that someone reports on the important stuff that its erstwhile staffers covered. Equally important is that people read the non-newspaper work in sufficient numbers to make it matter (which is tougher when everything is unbundled); that the power possessed by newspapers still resides in the fourth estate (or accrues to the people), rather than being absorbed by government; that the transition from newspapers to the institutions that take their place happens quickly enough to stave off a civic collapse; that old folks who won’t make the transition to digital somethings still possess a means of injecting their wisdom into the civic process. Etc. etc. etc.

Julian’s post contains characteristically smart insights into how we ought to think about the coming transition. Do read the whole thing. As you ponder it, however, consider that the supply side of journalism isn’t the only thing that’s radically changing as newspapers disappear — the demand side is changing too, and those changes are as important to consider as we decide how to preserve important civic functions before their absence does grave damage to our polity.