Bachelor of Arts
Michael D. Parkin
Media, Quality journalism, Press, Democracy, Walter Lippmann, Journalism, American politics, American journalism
In the United States, the news media is commonly referred to as the “fourth estate” because we rely on it to fulfill a variety of functions essential to a healthy democracy. We trust the media to, among other things, tell us what is going on in the world, contextualize and provide historical background on current events, filter politicians’ spin, fact-check, be a “watchdog,” promote robust civil discourse, and enable understanding of complex issues.
Up until the last decade or so, the media could meet this “standard” without sacrificing its financial well-being. The internet and the smartphone, however, changed everything. The web has transformed how America – and the world – gets its news. Caught up in their old ways and slow to respond to a rapidly changing world, media outlets saw their revenues plummet. Many news organizations laid off staff and others went out of business. Today the media is still struggling to adapt. These problems were caused by, among many factors, a proliferation in the number of news choices, a decrease in subscriptions, and major losses in advertisement revenue. The digital age has ushered in a depressing paradox for news organizations: Americans are consuming more news than ever before, but news companies are struggling to stay in business.
While some news organizations have folded, others have tried to evolve with the rapidly changing landscape. Still, no newspaper has discovered the perfect formula for turning a profit in the digital age. On January 1, 2018, when Arthur Gregg Sulzberger replaced his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, as publisher of the New York Times, he penned a letter to his readers in which he said, “The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions.”
A healthy democracy needs a robust press. This thesis seeks to explain the ways in which newspapers can remain financially viable while fulfilling the obligations of the fourth estate. In the digital age, how can major U.S. newspaper companies such as the New York Times and Washington Post continue to produce quality journalism that will adequately inform the American public?
This paper, using the Times and Post as models, will provide a roadmap for other newspapers to become or remain profitable. In so doing, it will seek to solve the two-pronged media crisis that exists in our country today: 1) Newspaper companies are going out of business all over the country, leaving people without the essential knowledge they need to make informed decisions about the society in which they live; 2) Newspaper companies, in an effort to become profitable and remain in business, are turning to techniques that degrade the quality of their journalism. This paper will show that newspapers can turn a profit without sacrificing the thoughtful and dedicated news coverage they have traditionally provided. This thorough coverage is essential to informing our citizens and keeping our democracy healthy.
This paper will first provide an explanation for how the media should function in a democracy, based on the thinking of the U.S. Constitution's Framers and the well-respected mid- twentieth century journalist and thinker, Walter Lippmann. Next comes a clarification of what “quality journalism” – a phrase mentioned in the research question – is, and why this paper focuses on the Times and the Post. Then it will provide background on the media’s “problem” – including both financial issues and the new ways that Americans get their news. Finally, it will get to the crux of my argument – how quality journalism can survive in the digital age. It will lay out the tactics media organizations can and have used, compare failed news organizations to those that have survived, and offer solutions for how the media can function best in these turbulent times.
Brewster, Jack, "Quality Journalism in the Digital Age: Strategies to Adapt and Remain Profitable" (2018). Honors Papers. 145.