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The media democracy needs—and deserves: A response to ‘Seven trends in old and new media’

The ways in which Americans receive news, opinion, and even gossip have changed radically over the last two decades. But despite the dramatic shift in how information is delivered, there has been absolutely no change—not in recent years, and not in the last several hundred—in people’s desire to learn about what is going on around them, says E.J. Dionne, Jr. in this new paper on the role of the media in America’s democracy.

“The media democracy needs – and deserves,” disentangles a series of questions raised by another recent Brookings paper, Elaine Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele’s “Seven Trends in Old and New Media.” Addressing several of the trends explored in that paper, Dionne often agrees with the authors, but also qualifies some of their observations, specifically pointing out that:

  1. Financial trouble for newspapers began before the rise of most of the institutions in the new media world.

    Technology may be behind the financial crisis facing print media, but online advertising, and not online journalism is to blame. According to Paul Starr, “If there is one overriding factor behind the current financial crisis of the press, it is simply that the Internet has undermined the newspaper’s role as market intermediary. Advertisers do not need to piggyback on the news to reach consumers, and consumers have other ways to find out about products and sales.”

  2. Older media outlets are struggling to finance journalism that focuses on the accountability of federal, state, and local governments, creating a genuine problem for democracy; but new media can help.

    “We do not yet live in a world in which the lost reporting capacity of older media has been replaced,” concedes Dionne. However, he reports, some of the leading new media outlets have beefed up reporting capacity and have healthy readerships to consume their news.

  3. The growing role of opinion on television, radio, and online represents a return to an earlier era.

    From the beginning of the Republic in the 1790s until the turn of the late 19th century, one of the central purposes of newspapers was to mobilize support for the political parties that supported them. Although the objective, professional model was dominant for most of the 20th century, opinion has resurged in the news in recent decades. “On the whole,” Dionne argues, “the proliferation of opinion has been and will remain positive for democratic deliberation and participation—but only as long as opinionated journalism is not seen as a replacement for older forms of reporting and only if we can find ways of bolstering such reporting.”

Ultimately, Dionne concludes that nostalgia for the past is futile, but valuing what was best about older media forms is essential. If American media and its consumers can successfully bridge the divide between old and new, Dionne paints an optimistic picture of what the future might hold for both journalism and our democracy.

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