Over the past year, there has been much talk about the future of traditional news organizations. While the Internet has made disseminating, discussing, and riffing on news much less costly, the reporting of news—the bringing of new facts to bear on a story—remains very expensive, and it’s not clear that a financial model still exists to support it. Faced with evaporating advertising revenues, the Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy in late 2008, followed by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s parent, and the Journal Register Company, which at the time owned twenty daily papers and 159 non-daily papers in the northeast. In January, the New York Times negotiated a $250 million loan—at unfavorable terms—from the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú in order to shore up its cash flow.
The question being hashed out on journalism blogs and over power lunches at Michael’s is how much this matters. Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor, has spent considerable energy justifying his employer’s existence to a contrarian chorus of “new media” bloggers—and even some longtime print journalists. In The Atlantic in January, Michael Hirschorn concluded his article on the possible death of the Times by saying it would be “a severe blow to American journalism” but perhaps not a disaster. The writer Jeff Jarvis has argued that newspapers could be replaced, at no substantial cost to society, by “an ecosystem made up of many players” including hyperlocal blogs and nonprofit newsrooms. This summer, a couple of news junkies deprived themselves of newspapers for three days and blogged about the experience on Slate. They survived.
“Society doesn’t need newspapers,” wrote Clay Shirky in a widely read blog post this March. “What we need is journalism.” Shirky was trying to shift the conversation from the fate of particular institutions to the project of original reporting. But who does in fact break news? Where do previously unknown twists to a story come from? Rather than exploring the question rhetorically, we decided to conduct a little experiment. We took a random Monday— September 21, 2009—and gathered all the news that was reported that day from 84 news sources across the spectrum, including sixteen major papers; thirteen magazines; many prominent network, cable, and radio news shows; and eighteen news-focused websites. Then we chose seven stories and set out to determine who was responsible for the individual pieces of original reporting that advanced each one.