This labor-intensive process is precisely the model that has been upended in industry after industry, driven to painful change by technological innovation and competitive threats…Feverishly anticipating the demise of their 19th-century industrial product, newspapers are once again renewing their efforts to take advantage, somehow, of the growth of the Internet. But they are uniquely ill-positioned to do so. When it comes to reporting the news, their greatest competitive asset is the size of their news-gathering and news-writing staffs. But they can afford those staffs only because of advertising revenue. And, on the web, they will generate only a fraction of the advertising revenue they have been able to generate in print as an effective monopoly. Moreover, and unlike the case with every other rival they have faced in the past, the technical cost of competing with them is astonishingly low…
The prospect is a very stark one for people who work in, write, and edit newspapers. For these people do not think of themselves as “content providers.” They think much more highly of themselves than that. They believe they play a vital role, perhaps the most vital role, in the defense of the freedoms of every citizen. After all, who else is there to keep a vigilant watch over the official custodians of society? Who else is there to protect the people from the depredations of business and government? Is not freedom of speech—the very freedom that enables journalists to ply their trade—the first of our freedoms, primus inter pares, and who will guard it if not they?
Historically speaking, this attitude is of relatively recent vintage. It may, in fact, be an artifact of the rise of the same highly profitable monopoly newspapers and shared-monopoly television networks that were so profitable and consequently grew so powerful that they gave the members of their news force reason to believe they were not just working stiffs—the general attitude of newspapermen throughout most of the preceding era—but akin to a democratic nobility.
The immodesty of this idea led many newspaper professionals of the late 20th century into a category error. They came to confuse the significance of the subjects they were covering with the act of covering them. Proximity to the news made them a species of news. They wrote about government; therefore, they were equivalent to the government in importance. They reported a war, and their act of reporting a war came to loom as large as the war itself. Today, the death of a journalist in a war zone is assigned vastly more weight than the death of a soldier.