Bill Keller: 'Journalism's greatest danger is loss of resolve'

No doubt you have read that newspapers, at least in my country, are beleaguered. That is undeniable. Let me count the ways.

To begin with, we have endured nearly seven years of the most press-phobic government in a couple of generations. I don’t intend to blame the plight of the newspaper business on George Bush. He did not invent our great disrupter, the internet. (That, you recall, was Al Gore.) The Bush administration has merely fed a current of public antipathy that has been running against us for a long time, a consequence of our own failings and, perhaps, a tendency to blame the messenger when news is bad. But Mr Bush has contributed to that unwelcoming environment in at least two significant ways.

First, he has rejected out of hand the quaint idea of our founders that the press has a constructive role to play in American society, and that this role consists in supplying citizens with the information to judge whether they are being well served by their government. The Bush administration believes that information is power, and that like most other forms of power it is not to be shared with those the regime does not trust. It most decidedly does not trust us.

Whatever you think of its policies, the current administration has been more secretive, more mistrustful of an inquisitive press, than any since the Nixon administration. It has treated Freedom of Information requests with contempt, asserted sweeping claims of executive privilege, even reclassified material that had been declassified. The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review. The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration’s determination to dominate the flow of information – from the original cherry-picking of intelligence, to the deliberate refusal to hear senior military officers when they warned of the potential for chaos, to the continually inflated claims about the progress in building up an indigenous Iraqi army.

I strongly suspect that these attempts to enforce a single, authorised version of ‘The Truth’ have backfired. The evidence for that lies in the identity of some of our best sources. They are military

officers appalled by the rosy portrayal of our triumphs in Iraq, government lawyers disturbed by what they see as a cavalier attitude toward civil liberties and the balance of powers, career intelligence officers who feel their work has been massaged to conform to what their superiors want to hear. As our media columnist David Carr once wrote: leaks tend to affect ships that aren’t seaworthy to begin with.

The distaste for debate and dissent has another, higher cost. Fighting terrorists, whatever method you choose, depends on making alliances at home and abroad. It depends on a consensus of the civilised world. And I wonder whether the discrediting of honest critics, the unwillingness to trust anyone except a cohort of diehard loyalists – has undermined the unity of purpose essential to such a struggle.

As has been widely reported, many daily newspapers are staggering from an exodus of subscribers, a migration of advertisers to the web, and the rising costs of just about everything. Newspapers are closing bureaus and hollowing out their reporting staffs….

It is possible to find a silver lining in the fact that billionaires are lining up to buy newspapers. Sam Zell, the colourful real estate mogul who is in the midst of acquiring a proud chain that includes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, recently told an interviewer, “All I can tell you is that for a dead industry with no future, there are an awful lot of schmucks who want to take it away from me!” As a shareholder, I’d like to take heart from that thought, but as an editor I’ll wait until I see what Mr Zell and his peers actually do with their new trophies.

For all of the woes besetting our business, I believe with all my heart that newspapers – whether they are distributed to your doorstep, your laptop, your iPhone or a silicon chip implanted in your cerebral cortex – will be around for a long time. Newspapers, including at least a few very good newspapers, will survive, simply put, because of that basic law of market economics: supply and demand. The supply of what we produce is sadly diminishing. And the demand has never been greater.

People crave trustworthy information about the world we live in. Some people want it because it is essential to the way they make a living. Some want it because they regard being well-informed as a condition of good citizenship. Some want it because they want something to exchange over dinner tables and water coolers. There is a demand, a market, for journalism.

At this time of desperate need for reliable news reporting, the supply is dwindling.

As it happens, newspapers have at least two important assets that none of the digital newcomers even pretend to match. One is that we deploy worldwide a corps of trained, skilled reporters to witness events and help our readers understand them. This work is expensive, laborious, sometimes unpopular, and occasionally perilous.

The New York Times has six correspondents assigned to Iraq, plus a rotating cast of photographers, plus Pentagon correspondents who regularly travel with the troops. We employ, in addition, about 80 brave Iraqis – many of them handpicked stringers based in towns that are no longer safe for westerners. Sustaining the Baghdad bureau costs several million dollars a year. We take extraordinary precautions to keep our people safe, but two of our Iraqi colleagues have been murdered in cold blood, almost certainly because they worked for an American organisation.

There are lots and lots of places you can go for opinions about the war, but there are few places, and fewer by the day, where you can go to find honest, on-the-scene reporting about what is happening. Here’s a statistic that should make your heart sink. When Saddam Hussein fell, there were more than 1,000 western reporters in Iraq. Today, at any given time, there are about 50.

Baghdad is an extreme example of the retrenchment in journalism, but it is not an isolated one. Survey the newsrooms of America and you will find that in most places foreign bureaus have been cut or eliminated – this in the time of globalisation.

My confidence in our future depends on the continuing vitality of the printed paper, the entrepreneurial energy we have unleashed at our website, but above all it depends on one other thing. While some newspaper companies are cutting the heart out of their core business, our company continues to invest in it.

At least twice in my lifetime The New York Times has seemed to be on the verge of extinction – once, during the New York City financial crisis of the mid-1970s, and again during the deep national recession of the late 1980s. Both times my paper resisted the temptation to panic. It invested in new things, it adapted, and it flourished. I believe that this time, too, newspapers that stay true to their mission will endure. In the end, I believe the gravest danger to the future of newspapers is not a hostile administration in Washington, not the acid rain of criticism, not a business model upended by new technology, it is a loss of faith, a failure of resolve on the part of the people who make newspapers.”

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