Time to de-industrialize ‘professional’ reporters

September 17, 2009
Gannett reported this week a record drop in earnings.

Gannett reported this week a record drop in earnings.

     Corporations have failed American journalism. Reporters have not failed corporate America.

     That is a distinction I think is vitally important in the debate on the future of journalism as we move beyond the current collapse of the mainstream media.

     I am not arguing the inherent evilness of corporations. The fact is the arc of American news outlets, as an adjunct of the Industrial Revolution, has followed nearly exactly the economic arc of the steel, coal, auto and nearly every other manufacturing concern. At the beginning, when innovation is high, steely-eyed entrepeneurs with energy and vision create successful businesses.

      These successful businesses attract investors, who then demand an ever-increasing profit to justify their investments. Eventually, the only way to achieve such returns is for these successful businesses to aggregate. Along the way, numerous trends are seen: the “professionalism” of the workers (i.e. journalism schools); incorporation of new, labor-savings technology (i.e. pagination, digital photography); an increasing reluctance for costly risk-taking (i.e. failure to invest). When hard times hit, corporate managers (who have long been seperated from the day-to-day production of the core business) look for ways to cut their way back to prosperity. The easiest, quickest way to achieve this is to slash the workforce, the people who actually keep the business in business.

         Gannett is the single best example. This week, the nation’s largest newspaper chain announced a jaw-dropping 60 percent reduction in earnings. More jaw-dropping, however, is the fact the company is still making a profit. How is this possible? Because, unlike the automakers (and this is where the arc diverges just a bit), the profit margins, defined as the difference between the money spent and the money brought in, has been so huge up to now, an average of about 30 percent for small to mid-sized newspapers.

        But, of course, this profit margin has been maintained at an enormous cost to Gannett readers in the form of newsroom layoffs.

         The pursuit of money is the American way, and corporations exist to create profit. The First Amendment, in fact, envisions journalism, like religion, as a private concern, apart from government. That means in order for professional journalists to exist there must be money attached to their efforts.

         If corporations turned journalism and the news into an industrial concern (as, indeed, it always has been), then how can this be undone? How can we seperate the work of the reporter from the interests of the investor. This is where new technology, rather than enslaving the journalist, can free him or her. See future posts for much deeper discussion of how that can be done.

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Defining ‘reporter’ as journalist

September 17, 2009

     Princeton University, that rarified institution where Einstein spent his latter days, defines a reporter thusly: a person who investigates and reports or edits news stories.

      Not much help there (after all, what’s a news story?).  A far better definition comes from the dialogue in “Teacher’s Pet,” an early 1950s movie starring Clark Gable and Dorris Day. Gable is the city editor for a metropolitan newspaper, and Day is a journalism professor at the local college who teaches night school. The tension of the plot: How do journalists define news. “Blood and sex,” Day says, holding up the screaming headlines in Gable’s paper. “Journalism is so much more than blood and sex.” Gable, giving his trademark squint, asks, “How do you feel about sex?”

     Ultimately, the grumpy, order-shouting Gable is persuaded reporters must go beyond the tantalizing “facts” to get the real story, and Day agrees reporters are not sociologists but storytellers. The debate they have is astonishingly appropriate 60 years later.

     The journalism community is in the midst of a similar, though perhaps more fundamental, debate. Who is a reporter? Are bloggers who react to Kanye West’s dissing of Taylor Swift “journalists?” What about those who toil on their Web sites to attack or support President Obama? Are they journalists?

       I vote no. A journalist in America, I would argue, has a narrow and specific meaning that has evolved through the decades and centuries since 1776. In order to be a reporter (i.e. journalist), three conditions must be met:

       1) Independence. A journalist must not be intelluctually allied with any particular group or any ideaology. This, I know, sounds naive, and it may be. The point is not that reporters are “objective,” which is the Golden Calf of journalism, but that they understand their own biases and proclivities and are willing to go around them in order to understand an issue, event or person.

        2) Public mindedness. By this, I mean simply that their efforts are directed at issues, events and people involved in matters of public concern. Public interest is as difficult to define (perhaps more so) than reporter, but the basic gist is this: it deals more often with the idea of “need to know” rather than “want to know.”

         3) Loyalty to accuracy. We leave truth for another day. But a journalist, above all, must have a good-faith belief that what he or she puts before an audience is accurate in a factual sense.

Declining credibility? I’m shocked, just shocked!!

September 15, 2009

    The Pew Center for Research has released its latest survey on the news media, and the results are predictably ugly.

    Among the findings:

  •     Sixty-three percent say news articles are inaccurate. That’s up from 53 percent in 2007.
  •     Seventy-four percent say news organizations take sides.
  •     Seventy-four percent also say news organizations also are influenced by powerful forces, such as political leaders and advertisers.

        These numbers coincide with a declining use of newspapers,  for instance, as the primary source for where people get their information, with 33 percent saying they got their news from newspapers.  So what does this mean? New York Times Executive

Bill Keller, executive editor NYT

Bill Keller, executive editor NYT

Editor William Keller believes the continuing decline is the result of the blogosphere and the ongoing chaos on the Internet.

       He is right to some degree. News consumers are increasingly confused about who is reporting what, to whom and how. The result is predictable. Like the Love Generation of the 1960s, it is smarter in these times to trust no one, consume only what feels good, and wait for “the truth” to emerge, like the Lochness Monster, from the depths of the murk.

       The answer in my view: News organizations must maintain faith in the values that built their craft, an independent curiousity and a willingness to anger anyone at anytime on matters of public interest. The issue news organizations have yet to face is that they have lost (or, perhaps, more fairly, misplaced) these values, these elements of the soul, including the New York Times, which apologized for failing to fulfill its watchdog in the days leading up to the Iraq War.

       Come back to the fold, my friends.

Welcome to Proreporter

September 13, 2009

       Journalism is in turmoil, as it always has been and always will be. This is a good thing. If the debate over what journalism is, who performs it and how it should be done were ever to cease, the great the American experiment of self-government will be over and the forces of tyranny and hegemony will have won.

       This site is dedicated to exploring, celebrating and clamoring for one side of this debate, the continuing existence of professional news reporters. By “professional” I mean those who earn their weekly shekels trudging through the dark innards of government and society, wrenching the facts from the clinging murk of spin and deceit and revealing the invisible to an audience. This site exists to support a single, fundamental principle: in order for republican democracy to exist, a strong, independent group of people must be able to devote themselves full-time to documenting, uncovering and providing perspective on the human condition, free from all fetters save their own consciences.

         I believe I offer if not a unique, certainly a rare, perspective on journalism, its influence and its current state. I have seen and experienced the power of journalism from both sides of the notebook. I have caused pain, and I have experienced pain (causing it hurts less). I worked in the news business for 23 years, as both a reporter and editor. I spent an ugly 17 months in state government. I have made legions of mistakes and won a few awards and I have returned to where I began as a freshman news-ed major at Marshall University, a kook for First Amendment values.

        Over the next several months, I will attempt to address some of the issues plaguing journalism. I will examine the definitions of “news” and “reporter.” I will explore the intersection between the First Amendment and money (there was a reason the nation’s founders protected “the press” as a private industry). I will explore some of the historical criticism directed the press (and its owners). I will offer perspective on the latest trends, such as the investigation on homeland security funds by California Watch.

         This site is aimed primarily at reporters, aspiring reporters, students, academics and journalism industry watchers. But all those interested in journalism, the First Amendment, news reporters and the fate of self-government are welcome.