The Huffington Post announced Sunday it is collaborating with The Atlantic Philanthropies and other donors to pay a group of investigative journalists to help fill the growing void created by mass layoffs in the newspaper industry. Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the popular blog, said the investigative work will be nonpartisan rather than reflect the liberal slant of The Huffington Post.
This is good news, and I hope the move leads others to fund similar ventures. Our democracy needs quality investigative journalism. Unfortunately, more needs to be done to save journalism from turning into an unchecked Internet free-for-all.
Last week U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, introduced legislation that would allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations with a tax-exempt status similar to that of public broadcasting companies. If this measure passes, it won’t be enough by itself to save major daily newspapers, but it may help smaller community newspapers stay afloat.
Of course, granting nonprofit status to newspapers would create new problems. Nonprofit newspapers wouldn’t be able to endorse political candidates but supposedly would still be able to openly report on political matters. But where would the line be drawn? Would nonprofit newspapers be forced to drop columnists who opine about politics? I suppose readers could find plenty of political columns online. But if the government decides nonprofit newspapers can’t publish any kind of political analysis, reporters will no longer be paid to mine their beats for all the information necessary to create in-depth political analysis.
These may be moot points. Cardin is having a hard time finding co-sponsors for his bill. Apparently politicians couldn’t care less about saving newspapers. I’m sure that is partly because less newspapers means less eyes watching over them. But the other major factor is that too many of their constituents just don’t care if newspapers die. (I highly recommend reading syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s take on this topic.)
I don’t pretend to know how to save the newspaper industry, but I am concerned that if our society loses newspapers, we will lose quality journalism. That is not to say all quality journalism stems from newspapers, because that is not the case. But think about the news alternatives: radio and television newscasts generally provide soundbites, not in-depth stories; cable news networks are more opinionated than nonpartisan; and the Internet has vast potential but currently isn’t a viable option for many people to make decent wages as Web-only journalists, so most in-depth reporting doesn’t originate there unless it is affiliated with another form of media.
The Internet will fill the investigative journalism void only if it pays reporters to do the necessary work. Newspapers are notorious for paying their employees low wages; the Internet, as a whole, is worse. Perhaps this will change someday. But until it does, I will continue to worry about the future of journalism. And so should you.