These are days of crisis for the publishing industry in general and for journalism in particular. The grand newspapers of record — like the New York Times, the London Times, Le Monde — have been slashing budgets and trying to figure out ways to survive in the transformed media environment that the Internet and financial instability have wrought.
The old models by which newspapers once thrived no longer seem viable. The new models have yet to be born. Media guru Clay Shirky and others have reminded us that the media landscape that held sway over the last century was something of an historical accident. High ideals aside, newspapers were a business. They had to make money. Think of William Randolph Hearst. The great newspapers made money, primarily, through advertising. The publishers needed journalism to provide the content through which they could fill up the non-advertising space of their newspapers. A symbiotic relationship was formed. As Shirky summarizes it:
The high expense of printing has created an environment where Wal-Mart is essentially subsidizing the Baghdad bureau. This isn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor is it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident of economics. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t have any other vehicle for display ads.
One of the big questions, then, is who is going to pay for all the investigative reporting and in-depth analysis that used to get paid for by the big media giants and their advertisers? The quick answer is that no one has any idea. But there is another answer, temporary and partial as it may be. It is called Al Jazeera.
The recent crisis in Egypt makes clear what many have known for a few years now. Al Jazeera is the best major media source. The reporting is a little more fearless, the exposés are a little more in-depth, the feature stories and interviews are a little more thoughtful than all the other guys. If you’ve got to pick just one media outlet, you’d be a stubborn mule indeed not to pick Al Jazeera. It is more serious than CNN, more genuinely global than the New York Times, and more complicated than the BBC. This is not a matter for serious debate anymore. It is a basic fact. While watching Al Jazeera’s coverage of the revolution in Egypt on live web stream, I managed also to catch an extremely good interview with the important and eloquent President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, in which he was asked tough questions about freedom of the press that American media outlets usually tiptoe around or ignore.
I watched a feature on coal mining in West Virginia that contained intelligent discussion about how coal is simultaneously necessary and detrimental to the region.
I was amazed by the depth and nuance of Rageh Omaar’s report on Serbia and Bosnia at the cusp of the Karadzic trial: “The Secret Life of Radovan Karadzic”.
Al Jazeera, it turns out, keeps afloat with money from the Emir of Qatar. The Emir of Qatar keeps afloat by means of oil money, with some help from natural gas. Qatar has so much of both things that it enjoys one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. So, there’s an economic model for you. Sustainable? Probably not. Dependent on the whims of an absolute monarchy? You got it. But the economic model upon which the previous century of good journalism was based was no less compromised. It is not the compromised position that matters so much as how you compromise. So far, Al Jazeera has taken their oil money and run straight for the utopia of journalistic integrity. It may not last. The good graces of the Emir of Qatar may sour. But all we are really looking for here is a temporary safe haven for real journalism in a time of media crisis. And it is time to give Al Jazeera the nod as the most interesting thing out there. From a tiny country in the Arabian Peninsula soaked in wealth by a global economy’s voracious need for energy comes the 21st century’s best current hope for an independent press. • 9 February 2011