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The New Media Landscape: Newspapers, Journalism, and The Fourth Estate

December 18th, 2008 by Max Gladwell · 6 Comments

The Fourth Estate is fundamental to our government and democracy. Newspapers may not need a bailout, but they do need a serious re-thinking.

This is the second in our series on The New Media Landscape, where we’ll explore the fate of newspapers. Starting things off on a lighter note, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart put together a funny bit:

Indeed, last week the Tribune Company (Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times) filed for bankruptcy protection, and The New York Times is taking out a mortgage on its building to raise $225 million.

It has also emerged this week that McClatchy, the third biggest US newspaper publisher, is looking to offload its flagship title the Miami Herald. Meanwhile, publisher EW Scripps has said that it is looking to offload Denver-based daily Rocky Mountain News as well as the newspaper’s 50% interest in the Denver Newspaper Agency. DNA publishes the RMN and the Denver Post.

The dismal outlook for the US newspaper industry was brought into stark relief late last week when Fitch, the credit ratings firm, put out a report predicting that by 2010 some US cities may have no papers. “More newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010,” the company said.

In our broad assessment of the new media landscape, we see plenty of pressure on all types of ad-supported media. Newspaper publishers just happen to be the first to go because the tide has been working against them for so long, starting with Craig’s List and more recently through competition from blogs and other online publishers. Should this be chocked up to market forces and letting the invisible hand do it’s thing? Should we let newspapers disappear en masse in favor of what the market prefers? More often than not, this would be our position. We haven’t supported any of the bailouts so far. It’s not that the government shouldn’t get involved; it’s that the efforts have been largely futile. With newspapers, though, there is a different set of issues and a different case to be made.

The Press is not just a business. It’s an essential part of our democracy and political system. The Press serves the public interest and provides a public good. It’s a vital check on political power and government. This is why it’s often referred to it as the Fourth Estate.

Novelist Jeffrey Archer in his work The Fourth Estate made the observation: “In May 1789, Louis XVI summoned to Versailles a full meeting of the ‘Estates General‘. The First Estate consisted of three hundred clergy. The Second Estate, three hundred nobles. The Third Estate, six hundred commoners. Some years later, after the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, looking up at the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, said, ‘Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than them all.'” (Wikipedia)

In America, the Fourth Estate (aka the Press) serves to provide checks and balances for each of the three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, Judicial. Just as the balance of power between the three branches of government has vacillated over our 232-year history, so has the power of the Fourth Estate. Today it’s pretty weak, which is more reason than ever to preserve it.

The Founding Fathers saw fit to create a democratic government with a vital separation of powers between the three branches. The Constitution explicitly describes the creation of an Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branch, complete with how they’ll operate. Other than the President having to address the union “from time to time”, though, the Constitution doesn’t direct our government officials to inform the public about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, or with whom. It’s not part of the job description. Not that it would have been effective, because politicians wouldn’t exactly be independent sources of information.

Instead, the framers of the Constitution addressed this detail (i.e. informing the public about how government is operating) as a fundamental right in the First Amendment. But freedom of the press is more about what government can’t do than what ought to be done to best serve the public interest. The Legislature is expected to pass laws that protect us. The Executive branch enforces them, and the Judiciary affirms their constitutionality (when challenged). But there’s nothing in there about letting the People know what’s going on. Do we have a right to know? Yes. Do they have a duty to tell us? No. There’s no obligation. So rather than create a branch of government that independently reports on what the other three branches are doing, the Founding Fathers essentially left it open-ended as a business opportunity. Because clearly people want to know what the government is up to, and they’re willing to pay for it.

A couple centuries later, the Press is big business that includes radio, broadcast, and online mediums. And thanks to the democratization of technology and information, there is tremendous competition. Newspapers have been slow to adapt, and the pressure of the current economic crisis is pushing many over the edge. In considering what to do about failing newspapers, we should ask ourselves, “Who benefits most when newspapers go out of business?” While it could be a competing newspaper or publication in the same market, our sense is that it mostly benefits the government that won’t otherwise be watched or scrutinized as closely.

In this sense, when newspapers fail, it’s bad for democracy and for the People of that democracy. Therefore, it’s in the public interest to preserve and support a vibrant and healthy Fourth Estate. The question then becomes, What should we do?

If newspapers can’t compete in the open market as for-profit enterprises, do they become nonprofits with the support of grants and foundations? Does the government take a greater interest in supporting and funding the independent press, as with the BBC in Britain and PBS/NPR in the U.S.? Or do we put our faith in the market and let the chips fall where they may?

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Tags: Economy · Media