An extensive analysis in Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper by Sinclair Stewart and Grant Robertson repeats a popular question: "(I)f print is a dinosaur, what will take up its traditional roles -- informing the public, animating civic culture and holding government accountable?" Jon Slattery picks it up in the U.K.'s The Guardian in a piece with the earthy title 'Where the hell do we go now?' And Canadian blogger and former journalist Mark Evans chimes in with his worry about maintaining the quality of journalism in the face of dissection of the newsroom . . . . without, however, taking a stand on the future of news journalism and without drawing a picture of an alternative news cosmos.
The background to the soul-searching is the precipitous disappearance of major newspapers in print form (The Seattle Intelligencer most recently and The San Francisco Chronicle likely next). At the core of the discussion, other than the loss of jobs and the "decline" of quality (The quotation marks are purposeful since quality has been in retreat in broadcast and print journalism from before social media became a threat.) is the question of whether social discourse, investigative inquiry and democracy will suffer without an energetic and well-financed fourth estate playing the role of critical watchdog.
The model is changing. That much is self-evident. But there is an embryonic new model within the decline (which nearly always happens in transition periods) and it is based on an unprecedented ability to gather, share and act collectively. Clay Shirky in 'Here Comes Everybody' calls it a new communications "ecology":
"The change isn't a shift from one kind of news institution to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, informal collectives, and individuals."
Some of the critical pieces of the prototype are already in place.
The ability of people using social networks to form and act together in groups means that problems like corruption and malfeasance among legislators, clergy and citizens can be discovered and fought with even greater speed than when we depended on investigative journalism to root it out. Shirky again . . . "social tools don't create collective action - they merely remove the obstacles to it." Without the obstacles to discovery and action, the social criminals and demagogues won't be able to hide for long.
With the ability of anyone to publish, for the time being we have lost the beauty of fine writing. But not the capacity to find and report significant events. In exchange, we've got speed in reporting news, depth, breadth and personality in what is understood as "news", and often now quirky and energetic prose. The result may be hyper-local community reportage (and publications), but it can also become national and international news if warranted or needed. The disappearance of some print and broadcast outlets doesn't mean that news is not being revealed, or that criticism isn't being coalesced into opposition, only that the agent has changed.
As for print newspapers providing a sense of community and hence their disappearance leading to a decline in a sense of place, this is silly. Where we get a sense of community is simply shifting to social networks built around communities and communities of interest. I can learn as much (and find out more immediately) about Toronto from torontoist.com as from the Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun.
Newspapers as we know them won't all disappear. We need journalistic models of quality, thoroughness and objectivity to learn from and against which to measure citizen journalism. And they're wonderful to sit with on a Sunday morning while enjoying a cappuccino. Nevertheless, their influence will surely continue to decline. However, democracy is safe in the hands of all of us.