Reporting, the Digital Age, and the Disappearing Middle Class

HOW are digital technology and the 21st century economy reshaping journalism, including arts reporting? I’ll plan to dig into economy-of-culture questions on this blog as often as I can. Today, a business columnist gets into it quite smartly in a new piece.

Michael Hiltzik’s Los Angeles Times column, “Supply of news is dwindling amid the digital media transformation,” debunks the sense that we’re moving in a golden age of journalism. Instead, wNew_York_Times_newsroom_1942-1e’re getting more analysis and commentary than ever, but much less reporting.

He quotes George Packer in the New Yorker:

What the Web has never figured out is how to pay for reporting, which, with the collapse of print newspapers, is in desperately short supply, and without which even the most prolific commenters will someday run out of things to say.”

As for commentary – which, of course, we need as well, here’s Hiltzik:

One suspects that the real reason that new online journalism sites often focus on commentary, analysis and context isn’t to feed unfulfilled demand, but because the overhead is low. You can commentate from anywhere, including your bedroom or your mother’s attic. Breaking a news story, however, often means buying a plane ticket, checking into a hotel, and deep-ending into a single subject for weeks or months at a time.

News reporting is often threatening to someone, which creates another expense: lawyers.

Are there ways to pursue serious journalism in this environment? Of course — I’ll point to the site I often contribute to, Salon, or to ArtsJournal. But many challenges remain. (I’ll point out that I am, for now, optimistic re. Greenwald’s forthcoming investigative site.) So far arts journalism has been hit very hard, and the surge of digital media has not brought it back. Let’s hope some of the new initiatives bear fruit.

A related issue, which cuts into all kinds of things that matter, from newspaper subscriptions to book purchases to museum tickets, is the hollowing out of the middle class. This has long been a concern on the political left, but it’s gotten so bad that business owners are starting to complain about it. After all, consumer spending makes up about 70 percent of the economy – when the middle-class shrinks, they spend less money, and everyone feels it.

Today a New York Times story documents the changes: “The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World.”

The sectors that rely on a middle-class consumer are fading. Of course, fields that depend on hedge-fund managers and Russian plutocrats – which is increasingly the case with the visual-art market – thrive. Potential donors, of course, make more money, but it’s not helped arts institutions much in recent years. And is that really the way we want culture to work in the 21st century? Nelson D. Schwartz writes::

As politicians and pundits in Washington continue to spar over whether economic inequality is in fact deepening, in corporate America there really is no debate at all. The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.

If there is any doubt, the speed at which companies are adapting to the new consumer landscape serves as very convincing evidence. Within top consulting firms and among Wall Street analysts, the shift is being described with a frankness more often associated with left-wing academics than business experts.

ALSO: At the risk of being relentlessly grim today, let me close with a brief salute to Philip Seymour Hoffman. From Boogie Nights to Capote to The Master, he may have been my generation’s finest actor. Tom Carson of GQ asks if he may’ve been America’s greatest actor, period. Carson writes:

the heroin overdose that allegedly did Hoffman in made it unmistakable that we’d always been strangers to this man’s innermost life. At least in public, a poster boy for self-destructiveness he wasn’t. That obviously means he was better at concealing the psychological pressures he was under than we could ever have guessed from the rumpled, thoughtful, ego-allergic pleasure he projected at just getting to practice his craft.

I knew Hoffman almost entirely through his films. I sat next to him at a Mark Taper performance of Chekhov, and interviewed him by phone for a profile of film director Todd Solondz. Hoffman came across as grounded, solid, literary – we spoke a bit about the glories of Richard Yates’ prose – and humbly dedicated to his muse. (We got off track a bit talking about the New York theater company he helped run. The dude’s idealism was clear.)

In any case, many of us are still reeling from this enormous loss.

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