The Washington Times

The Politico, the new Web site specializing in Washington political coverage, may or may not be the wave of the future. But it is trying to crack through an odd wall that has spontaneously sprung up between media new and old.

Let us begin with praise of the new media, the online world of Web sites and blogs, for what they do best. First, research. The background is now part of the story, whatever the story is. A wealth of texture for current events is now a mere Google search away, and the Web essentially relieves those posting of the newsprint space and broadcast time constraints that limit the ability of old media to provide as much context as they would like.

The second strength is access to expertise. There aren’t a lot of people knowledgeable about typewriter capabilities in the 1960s (to cite the notorious example of exposure of the “60 Minutes” fake documents), but there are some. And what used to be the task of the newsweeklies — namely, finding a scientist who can explain why polonium is deadly when ingested but not dangerous to the touch — is now not much of a task at all; chances are pretty good a scientist will find you, via e-mail.

The third strength is commentary. It is now possible to gain access to most every point of view on all major news events. If a point in favor or against has not occurred to you, chances are pretty good it has occurred to someone else.

The umbrella strength of the new media, covering all the preceding, is speed. What once took days now takes mere minutes. And in the service of speed from the user’s point of view is aggregation, the way a website gathers material from others to retell a story in digest form with links to its sources.

Now, with each strength comes a corresponding danger. There is such as thing as too much information, or more than anyone would want to know. The opinion of experts sometimes wanders into areas of non-expertise. Commentary tends to be somewhat polarized as people flock to the places where they expect to find ratification for their inclinations. And “speedy” is sometimes a euphemism for “hasty.”

As somebody who writes a newspaper column once a week and edits a bimonthly publication devoted to papers and essays on policy topics that start at around 5,000 words, I have taken a certain stand against the negatives described above. The Web, even from the point of view of commentary and analysis, is not all there is. Nevertheless, it’s hard to make a case that the democratization of current-affairs commentary and analysis is anything but a net positive, and the fact is that more people read this column online than in print, just as the online “circulation” of articles in Policy Review is a multiple of the print circulation.

But what the new media do not really provide in especially great quantity is news. It still falls largely to the old media to report the facts on which this vast new-media edifice of commentary and analysis stands, and on which it depends. For better or worse, there is probably more uniquely new factual content, more news, in this newspaper or The Washington Post every morning than the new media produce in the aggregate in a month. In some cases, of course, we get our information from the newspaper Web sites, but there is something about the task of covering the news of the day that has remained alien to the new media.

I think there’s an explanation for that, which is that journalism, in the sense of reporting the news, is a craft. It has certain rules and conventions which are not arbitrary but are essential to the process, such as arranging the factual presentation in a particular manner and telling both sides of the story. Michael Crichton is a crackling storyteller who occasionally intersperses supposed newspaper and magazine clips into the story. And if you’ve ever been in the news business, those clips grate on you, because they simply don’t sound like news writing at all. This superb novelist is no reporter.

What keeps journalism going is the craft, whether the story is exciting and worthy of commentary or not. And we will always need people who are more interested in reporting the facts than in the commentary. We all know about the decline in newspaper circulation, and some say the newsprint daily is on the way to extinction. I think philanthropists will step in to run them on a nonprofit basis before that day comes.

If it does come, however, it will be because the online media, or some part of it, begin to acquire the news-gathering habits of the old media. Which is to say, the old media will move online. Which is further to say, the distinctive quality of the old media is not newsprint or the broadcast studio, but the indispensable craft of gathering the news. That’s what the Politico has taken online and why it’s such an interesting project.