It is hard to go into journalism today, for the obvious reason that jobs at newspapers have been lost and for the less obvious reason that the climate today does not encourage reviving good journalism. What do I mean by that? Well, during my whole year at Columbia School of Journalism, where I generally received an excellent journalism education, many of the speakers who were brought in to talk about the changing media environment–to put it euphemistically– spoke more to the technology deficiencies of newsrooms to explain the decline of newspapers than to what seemed to be the real problem: that newsrooms at some point stopped having as their mission to put out a good product. Why did this happen, and even worse maybe, how have we come to take it for granted?
David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and “Homicide Life on the Streets” and former Baltimore Sun reporter has had a lot to say about it in the past several months. The downward descent began when newspaper owners sold their papers to publicly-traded, shareholder accountable entities that were concerned only with making a profit. Unadulterated capitalism does not work for an organization whose mission in part involves serving the public, he said. He gave this great talk about this and more that was featured on CSPAN yesterday (go here for it). My uncle who works there pointed me to it. A few highlights below of what Simon said (hardy har):
We’re going to have to start believing in content again. We’re going to have to pay for content to provide it.
I don’t believe in bloggers as anything other than an additional resource…
On whether citizen journalists, like those at the Huffington Post, can replace reporters:
To cover a beat as a reporter: I would not have done it for free, or to inform my blog, or for some sense of civic duty. I did it because the Baltimore Sun paid me a salary that I could support a family on…They paid me to go to the Baltimore Police Department and kiss enough desk sargents’ ass every day to find out what was going on and then to kiss somebody else’s ass to find out if I was being lied to, and then to compare one lie to the other and then to take them out for drinks afterward and find out what else wasn’t in that day’s story that might make it a follow-up story. It was 14, 15 hours a day. Nobody does that as a hobby. And the vanity of the internet having sort of approached the very edge of what journalism is…of this very immature medium is to say ‘We’re already doing journalism. Look, I went to a council meeting…’ Yeah, you went to the public-like, kabuki face of politics, which was the council meeting. But later on, if you actually knew anybody in the bowels of the city administration, you might have actually reported on what’s really going on. But for that, you would have needed to be a fulltime–and you’d deserve to be paid.
During my year at school, I heard a couple of times that there was no longer relevance to covering things like courts and city council meetings. My reporting boot camp class was one of the few I knew of that actually sent us to report a court story. But, as Simon suggests, going to the meeting is not enough, one has to go behind the scenes to get the story. That story will always be relevant.
He went on about USA Today and the rise of “no-below-the-fold” journalism (i.e. articles not continued past page 1):
‘The idea that you can cover something well enough to explain it to the mythical seventh grade-educated reader… I don’t want to write for that guy. To hell with that guy.
Trying to anticipate what readers want–that’s what got us into this mess. Go out and get the story.
Opinion is not the same as news, Simon says, though it appears to be where media outlets, like Newsweek, are going. Blogs like this one simply do not fulfill the same role.
I hope I get a job someday where I can do what Simon talks about, and I hope the hyper-local reporting that is going on is a start of a renewed good journalism, but I believe Simon is right that good journalism needs money. The price of not investing? Well, not to be dramatic, but democracy, or at least decently-functioning democracy. It’s too bad there are not more 1970s-style idealistic folks who still talk about how good journalism keeps the powers that be in check.