THE BLOG
11/06/2014 01:53 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Online News Has Not Been the Death of Quality Reporting

I love reading the newspaper. By which I mean the black-and-white, often-messy, use-two-hands, used-to-be-a-tree paper item that is delivered to front doors in increasingly few numbers. The paper paper. Indeed, I am one of those people Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "the medium is the message," was talking about when he said, "People don't read newspapers. They slip into them like a warm bath." I have long luxuriated in the ritual of spending Sunday morning with the newspaper spread out in front of me, long before it was actually considered a luxury.
Nearly a decade ago, I began to mourn what was predicted then (and still) as the impending death of the newspaper. In the years since, this has proven to be sort of true. We've seen newspapers decline, then resurge, then decline once more. Wealthy men got into the business of saving newspapers -- Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, John Henry at the Boston Globe, Warren Buffett in small towns across the U.S. -- in what many took as a sign of optimism.

But, then, I've never really been concerned that print papers would actually cease to print. That fact seems inevitable. More, it was concern that as newspaper companies adapted to the realities of consumers that can travel the world on their iPhones -- and, yes, as they're bought up by businessmen who've made millions not by refusing to think forward -- they become a shell of their original purpose and instead a brand name. They become marketing tools, storefronts, for a collection of websites and niche publications. The ventures, of course, that make the money. In the meantime, the gravitational force that holds the parts of a community in its orbit slowly slips away. We no longer look for the election highlights together, the morning after; we look for them at midnight the night before. By the morning, everyone has weighed in. Nothing feels personal.

The Internet is, without a doubt, a sea of self-interests. In recent years, as predicted, we have seen digital newspapers share space with those who have a position to promote, a score to settle, a diet to sell. We have seen the rise of a community known as the disgruntled commenter, the one who picks fights, hates the writing, never has anything nice (or productive) to say.

But that's the price we pay and, well, I've come to realize it's a relatively small one. Because at the same time, the Internet has surprised us with not only its profitability but also its ease, its accessibility, and its scope. Turns out, online isn't any more lowbrow or any less intellectual than the Internet (except, of course, where it is but, then, there have always been tabloid print pubs, too). There are callous commenters, yes, but there are also thoughtful ones who spark real conversation and debate, offering real-time feedback -- and thereby foster a real sense of community. The Internet is a democracy, and we're all invited to join the conversation. That's not news-lite; that's life.

The infinity of the Internet has also spawned a resurgence in long-form journalism, with sites like Longform.org, Byliner, and Longreads.com, which collect and republish the best journalistic reads, as well as those like Medium and Atavist, which commission original content. These sites have even proven to be successful business models -- turns out, people will pay for content online, so long as it's good. Deposed New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson recently announced that her latest digital venture with media vet Steve Brill will pay writers advances of $100,000 to create stories that are "longer than long magazine articles," and which will be read online. Sure, the 140-character story is #trending, but so is the long, meaty (tablet) read. News organizations have found that using the Internet can actually enrich storytelling, as in the New York Times' excellent multimedia features that combine text and video in a seamless way. Websites have come to have the space -- and the budgets -- to encourage in-depth reporting and the sort of luxurious, dreamy storytelling that has gotten chopped down in publications restricted by page count.

There's also the immediacy and the accuracy of the Internet. Things like the fake box score reported to a Pennsylvania newspaper don't happen -- or do, but are quickly corrected. I have, as a result, found myself unexpectedly -- happily -- satisfied with the digital revolution, and the idea that the rise of online news needn't mean the death of quality and tradition, of thorough reporting and thoughtful storytelling. I have come to celebrate chiming in on stories I agree with, and hearing from readers of my own pieces who have perspectives to add.

And I've realized that I can have my digital and my print, too -- I still get the Sunday paper in print form because I enjoy the weekend morning ritual of turning a page versus swiping a screen, but find that reading it online the rest of the week serves my purposes. So am I worried about print anymore? No. As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as too few seats at the table. In this day and age, the fact that everyone's invited is cause for celebration.