by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

A future for newspapers?

The French government has announced a ten-fold increase in its support for the country's print media, in an effort " make sure an independent, free and pluralistic press exists," according to President Nicholas Sarkozy.

While there's some grumbling that Sarkozy's motivations might not be so pure, I understand the problem he's trying to address. One of the elements of that response is that the government will underwrite a year-long newspaper subscription for French citizens when they turn 18. 

It's an idea worthy of a headline.

One of the many myths confusing folks these days is that you can crowdsource truth. If everyone blogs and chats with everyone else, or so the liturgy goes, the crowd will eventually wiki everything to the lowest, most common denominators. There is no truth beyond these conclusions; any thing before or outside them is simply an opinion.

It's an intriguing idea until you start to work through, say, medical research, crime investigations, or just about any subject in which facts matter. Objective truth can't be determined by a committee, it turns out, and interpretation can't take its place. The mechanism of crowdsourcing -- endless participation by an infinite number of individuals -- isn't the same thing as a true consensus, and it's also lumpy and imperfect. Before the collective has spoken, if it ever does, there can exist much ignorance and confusion in its place.

So we get large groups of people who believe that black helicopters are trying to install a One World government. Or believe that there's no connection between H.I.V. and AIDS. Or simply and selectively decide what they choose to believe as truth, because truth is in the eye of the believer...because facts are nothing more than variables, there are endless contradictory, walled communities of shared insight, often times irrespective of what the greater "crowd" might deem the truth.

In other words, newspapers are more than just a delivery technology.

The media, conceptually, are aribiters of fact, if not truth. There are imperfect but still reasonably rigorous standards for "old" media reporting: because of a combination of thoughtful criteria (confirming sources, names attached to stories) and circumstantial ones (newsprint has a life far longer than flaring electrons, and circulation has to be large and regular in order to support ad rates), they have to ascribe to established rules instead of the ever-changing crowd

Nobody ever liked newsprint, per se, and newspapers are just a distribution channel for content. It's that content -- and a community's reliance of some consistent rigor for noting and reporting news -- that gave the medium its relevance and utility. 

So turning newspapers into printed versions of web sites, or repurposing newspaper web sites with blogs and comments just doesn't make much sense. I don't know why these "old" media haven't aggressively reaffirmed their reporting criteria, almost as a here's why you need objective reporting declaration to would-be citizens.  

A community needs regular doses of objective fact on which it can rely; once informed, people can feel free to wait for the crowd to assess whether a lone gunman shot JFK.

We don’t need newspapers as much as what they do. Or what they did, since most of the American versions have relaxed their standards, cut back their investigations, and otherwise done their best to hasten their own demise.

So I choose to view President Sarkozy's gesture as an effort to insert the role of newspapers -- not necessarily the medium itself -- back into the lives of the citizenry. He knows that routines are hard to break, so if he can get a community to witness shared media, perhaps they can develop the habit of sharing facts, not just passing opinions on them.

It's a classic strategy: give away the razor (newspapers) so users get addicted to the blades (objective reporting). It might help rescue the true community of real-world civilization, while it enriches the publishers the President wants to schmear. And even if people choose electronic blades over time, at least they'll have a better idea of why they need them.

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