Can journalism survive?
Or will journalism—as well as newspapers—become a casualty of the digital age? Does it matter?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist JEFF BRAZIL '85 goes looking for answers.
Back in 1995, Craig Newmark of Craigslist lore was just an unknown technologist who started a "hobby" of publishing an e-mail distribution list of social events where people in San Francisco could meet up. Fresh off a lengthy stint at IBM, he had just taken a job with Charles Schwab, he was new to the city, and he thought something simple that informed people of upcoming art and technology events would be helpful. From its earliest moments, his effort was noteworthy for its culture of trust, its sense of civic service, its passion for the San Francisco community, and its dis-embrace of all things commercial. Today, it is common in newspaper and journalism circles to finger Craig Newmark's hobby-turned-global classified advertising portal, Craigslist, for the dramatically vulnerable position newspapers find themselves in by his having poached the industry's primary revenue source.
But around the time Craigslist was unfolding I was working as a reporter with the Los Angeles Times and there was a moment in the newsroom that left me wondering whether newspapers were beginning to lose their way for completely different reasons. It happened on a weekend when a reporter colleague was doing a routine check-in of the Los Angeles-area police stations to see if any newsworthy crimes had occurred. One station told her there had been a fatal gang incident involving several youths. I overheard her end of the conversation in which, toward the end of the phone call, she asked something to the effect of, "Was there anything unusual about it?" The next day, the newspaper ran only a small article about the disturbing incident in an inside section of the paper. I remember wondering whether this symbolized a disconnect between the newspaper and the community, a breach of the newspaper's covenant as watchdog and guardian. The incident stayed with me long afterwards, even after I left the Los Angeles Times and the newspaper industry, and especially in those moments when I've reflected on how we arrived at the current crisis in newspapers and journalism.
Without a doubt the off-the-cliff drop in classified advertising due to Craigslist has been a major dilemma for the newspaper industry. But another cause of the crisis— arguably, a more fundamental one because it is both structural and existential—has been the struggle for newspapers and journalistic entities to stay true to their larger social mission in their communities and beyond.
The roots of this erosion, I believe, can be traced back to the nature of contemporary media ownership and industry consolidation that has resulted in the dramatic reshaping of newsgathering in the pursuit of higher monetary profits. I saw this phenomenon firsthand before I left the newspaper industry in the fall of 2000.
What's interesting about the conversation that typically takes place about the sustainability of the newspaper industry is that while the loss of classified advertising due to Craigslist is real, the intangible issues highlighted by Craigslist are no less real. Trust, respect, engagement of the community, a sense of community service, not being greedy—these are the qualities that have helped Craigslist and Newmark, its unassuming founder, prosper. But such characteristics were once aspirational goals of newspapers if not actual ones. Craigslist last year was heavily criticized for its "adult services" section, which seemed to all but promote prostitution, and the company appears to have responded positively to concerns expressed by government, media, advocacy groups, and celebrities. But that issue aside, when I listen to Newmark, aka "the man who killed the newspaper," talk about his appreciation for the importance of public service journalism and especially investigative journalism, I cannot help but feel he sounds far more like a journalist and newspaper advocate than most contemporary newspaper publishers and owners do.
Watchdogs and press lords
Editor John Carroll is on a short list of any American journalist's list of most respected newspaper editors. A former top editor of The Baltimore Sun, The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, and the Los Angeles Times (our careers crossed there for just a few months in 2000) and ex-metropolitan editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer when it won numerous Pulitzer Prizes, he has invested considerable time investigating the future of newspapers and journalism thanks to support from the Knight Foundation and the Shorenstein Center. As part of his research, he interviewed dozens of luminaries, one of whom was super-investor Warren Buffett. His time with Buffett drove home the reality of the utterly remade landscape newspapers and journalism faced and also highlighted that the industry itself is responsible for significant portions of its plight.
"I spent a Saturday morning with Buffett in his office in Omaha," Carroll recounted. "He told me hilarious stories about how he realized that newspapers were a racket. He told me about a conversation he had with a British press lord who owned a paper in the city across the river from Omaha. Buffett told me he asked this press lord one time, 'How do you decide how much to raise your advertising rates?' He said the press lord laughed and told him, 'Oh, I tell my American managers, every year we raise them of course, but I think that a 45 percent profit margin is probably enough.' He said, 'After you get by that, you're almost gouging.'
"Buffett thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard—45 percent. So, Buffett got into the business. And he invested in Washington Post stock in the early 1970s. By the time the Post stock peaked in 2004 … [it] was worth 175 times what he had paid for it. That just tells you what a lucrative business it was; … We had a quasi-monopoly."
No more. "With the Web, the 11-year-old kid down the street can sell ads online just as much as the guy who has $200 million worth of printing presses. Advertising has become plentiful and cheap. And that has really crushed newspapers' ability to do what they have done in the past."
Nobody can be expected to be sympathetic toward an industry being torqued by the same Darwinian forces it has employed to its advantage for decades. But newspapers aren't just another industry. They still occupy a unique role in journalism. And journalism occupies an indisputably essential role in democratic society.
"I don't think that the survival of newspapers—as a daily paper entity that is delivered to homes or available on newsstands—is important," said Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University, a pioneering scholar in ethics, human intelligence, and social science. He has written extensively on how market forces have affected the fields of journalism and genetics. "But if you ask whether journalism as a profession is necessary, the answer is a resounding yes.
"Journalism came into its own in democratic societies over the last century and has made an enormous difference in the health of those societies. It is hard to think of American history in the latter half of the 20th century without thinking of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and more recently, the investigative journalism that did or did not take place concerning the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Gardner said.
Going back a bit further, to the early part of the 20th century, C.C. Regier in The Era of the Muckrakers chronicled the crucial link between watchdog journalism and social reform: "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. The convict and peonage systems were destroyed in some states; prison reforms were undertaken; a federal pure food act was passed in 1906; child labour laws were adopted by many states; a federal employers' liability act was passed in 1906, and a second one in 1908, which was amended in 1910; forest reserves were set aside; the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible; a policy of the conservation of natural resources was followed; eight-hour laws for women were passed in some states; racetrack gambling was prohibited; 20 states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913; 25 states had workmen's compensation laws in 1915; an income tax amendment was added to the Constitution; the Standard Oil and Tobacco companies were dissolved; Niagara Falls was saved from the greed of corporations; Alaska was saved from the Guggenheims and other capitalists; and better insurance laws and packing-house laws were placed on the statute books."
In recent months, even amid historically distressing conditions, newspapers across the country have continued to research and publish stories that have exposed corruption and injustice at local and national levels, held powerful people accountable, and revealed inequities enjoyed by the privileged:
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Its "Cashing in on Kids" series exposed rampant fraud and other abuses in Wisconsin's taxpayer-subsidized child-care system.
- The Chicago Tribune: The paper brought to light serious inequities in the University of Illinois by showing how hundreds of students with inferior academic performances were accepted ahead of more-deserving students because they were well connected.
- The Sarasota Herald-Tribune: It analyzed a massive number of real estate transactions in Florida for the last decade and exposed how a scheme in the housing market happened and, ultimately, contributed to the economic collapse in the state.
- The Washington Post: Coverage of a fatal Metro crash initially characterized as a freak accident revealed a track record of systemic negligence in ignoring emerging safety issues.
- The Kansas City Star: A six-month investigation documented the rising numbers of immigrants who wind up being trafficked and held against their will for labor, sex, and money in the Midwest.
- The Seattle Times: Its exposé on the collapse of Washington Mutual detailed how exotic, predatory practices doomed a 119-year-old institution that had survived the Great Depression and the savings and loan crisis.
A cursory Google search of noteworthy newspaper exposés and watchdog journalism from 2010 and 2009 would unearth scores of other examples. (And yes, that is a telling—if obvious and practical—recommendation.)
While few thoughtful individuals would argue that the print newspaper as a form is sacrosanct, the fact is that in the journalism world, print newspaper organizations still produce the vast majority of the news that is packaged in other forms on radio, television, and the Internet. And when it comes to specific types of journalism—investigative, public service, reporting derived from the local city hall, county government, state government, courthouse, and police station—it's the print journalists who are still the primary ones doing the in-depth digging.
"Even if we assume that basic, breaking news would still somehow get out on the Internet without newspapers, think about all the things that have been dug up in the last few years by newspaper reporters—whether you're talking about the national level (CIA waterboarding and black-site prisons, abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal) or at the local and state level, say in California (the city of Bell salary scandal, scandals at the L.A. County hospital and the LAPD)—the public would know little or nothing about any of those topics if it weren't for newspapers. So yes, we better care," said Eric Lichtblau, a New York Times investigative reporter. Lichtblau won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2006 for a series of stories on secret eavesdropping on American citizens by the Bush Administration. The stories stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty. Lichtblau, a former colleague of mine from the Los Angeles Times, is a study in aplomb, not given to alarm. "Some of what's happened to newspapers is self-inflicted; newspapers were slow to see the advent of the Internet and the tremendous impact it would have," he said. "If more media executives had tried to position themselves five or 10 years ago as information providers— providing instant business data like Bloomberg, for instance, or government data like the Center for Responsive Politics—rather than through the traditional news prism, we might not be operating so dangerously close to the margins right now in our financial schemes.
"No one is certain how it will all shake out."
After 25 years as a reporter and editor at The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Constitution, the Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, and The Honolulu Advertiser, news executive Mark Platte recently moved into broadcast journalism as news director for Hawaii News Now, Hawaii's largest broadcast news entity. He told me: "Journalism is absolutely under siege, and though we keep hearing that it's actually a good thing that more and more people can practice journalism through blogs, tweets, and other electronic means, it's absolutely a false notion. Great media institutions spend time and money to research, investigate, and publish important stories worthy of the public's attention. If that goes away, we are a poorer society."
Crowdsourcing and the end of fat, happy days
All Tim Berners-Lee wanted to accomplish when he conceived the platform that would lead to the creation of the World Wide Web, on Christmas Day 1990, was to make it easier for a group of geeky, genius physics researchers to communicate and share their research. Even a few years in, he had little sense that he and computer scientist Robert Cailliau and others had set in motion a force that would trigger the third major shift in human communications and culture, from print to digital.
Elisabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change has written extensively about the second major revolution in communications and culture, from manuscript to print (the first revolution being from oral to manuscript). She traces three seminal movements in human history directly to the invention of the printing press—the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and modern scientific inquiry. Point being, communication and media revolutions are far more sweeping than we understand in the moment, and we are living through the very early years of another pivot point in human history as far as communication and culture. Prior communication revolutions have disrupted multiple domains—science, religion, politics, education, medicine, commerce, and media of course—and the digital version is no different. Newspapers and journalism are hardly alone in their pain and disorientation.
"We're not the only industry that's been affected by disruptive change, and we shouldn't think of ourselves as being the only one," said Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, one of the earliest newspapers to embrace an aggressive strategy on the Web and in the digital space. "Take a look at the music industry, the entertainment industry, the travel industry. There are a whole range of industries that have been dramatically affected by changing technology. Where we as an industry failed ourselves was not investing in research and development. The industry had its fat, happy days and it wanted to maintain its fat, happy days.
"When I look at the signature innovations in the media environment of the last 10 years, not a single one of them grew out of a traditional media company. Not Google. Not Flickr. Not YouTube. Not Facebook. Just run down the list of the most interesting new players in the media environment and not one of them came from a traditional media organization," Baron said.
Through the decades, newspapers and journalism have been reshaped by several communication and media innovations. The invention of the telegraph, radio, television, and cable all forced dramatic rethinking. Some entities didn't make it. New ones arose. The principles of creative disruption did what they do in the way that they do, bringing pain and uncertainty, but also progress and innovation.
But the Web is different from past disruptions. It is a combination of all of them rolled into one, and then some. It's audio. It's video. It's mobile. It's ubiquitous. It's ever-present. It's instant. It's whenever you want it, wherever you are. Today's version of the Web radiates a completely different energy than even the early days of the Web in the 1990s when we had dial-up connections. Broadband and speed are what truly reframed the world for media and information enterprises like newspapers.
"The old business models are not working in part because they are based on old understandings of what it means to read a newspaper," said media scholar Henry Jenkins. He has been at the forefront of probing how digital-age forms of sociality, connectivity, and communication have affected journalism, entertainment, and media. "News consumption is now much more of a collective than a solitary experience," said Jenkins, who recently joined the University of Southern California after leaving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directed MIT's Comparative Media Studies graduate program. "We still imagine the classic image of the gentleman having breakfast, sipping tea, his newspaper open in front of him, seeking refuge from any and all interruptions. … The problem is that while some of us old-timers may still read the newspaper that way, most of us do not."
For starters, swap the newspaper for a computer, Jenkins said. "We follow links sent by our friends. We catch news on apps we read while riding the bus to school or work. We check out blogs or Twitter feeds from folks we know have a good track record of identifying news content which matters to us. We are constantly checking news because news comes to us through every conversation we have throughout the day. So, until the business models for news are aligned with how people are consuming news, rather than trying to discipline us to continue old practices in a new context, they are going to fail to capture much of the public interest in news, and they are going to seem increasingly odd to younger readers who have come up in a much more participatory culture."
Journalism remains important even to new media entities. And actually, some new Web-based organizations are successfully accomplishing some of what newspapers and journalists have traditionally done.
In the violent aftermath of the disputed presidential election in Kenya in 2007, a small group of activists, technologists, and bloggers created a crowdsourcing website called Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili. It collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by e-mail or text, and created Google maps, so people would know what was going on and could try to stay safe. Ushahidi was also used following the tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti to allow citizens to collectively report urgent or dangerous situations or where people needed to be rescued. The technology is free and open-source, so it is being used by more and more organizations in pressing situations where mapping and crowdsourcing can make a meaningful contribution. Another website, mySociety, provides people in local communities with simple websites and tools to track what their local politicians and elected civic leaders are doing, opportunities to communicate with them about problems in the community, and mechanisms to create e-petition drives and connect with other members of their community. Still another entity, the Harry Potter Alliance, uses its website and social networking to mobilize its growing community of Harry Potter fans and issue-conscious activists to take civic action in a variety of social issues. In the summer of 2007, for example, the group convened gatherings around the country intended to increase people's awareness of the Sudanese genocide. The group has also marshaled its community in the fight for workers' rights at Walmart, against Proposition 8 in California, and to promote literacy for underprivileged children.
Newspapers and news organizations "did not anticipate that networks would afford many-to-many communication, not just act as a more efficient channel for few-to-many broadcast," said Howard Rheingold, author of two prescient books on the digital age, Smart Mobs and The Virtual Community. "I think that was the most important oversight." Rheingold is an Internet pioneer and a genuine fan of the new connectivism brought on by the digital revolution. "New forms of journalism are arising," he said. "A great deal of experimentation is occurring. Journalists are multiplying in the digital ecosystem." And yet: "Real questions remain about how long-form investigative journalism will be supported. I'm neither a knee-jerk pessimist nor a digital utopian. We need to remain concerned in many ways over the health of the public sphere."
Santa Clara University's Chad Raphael, an associate professor of communications and a scholar in the history of news, says journalism is a more diverse field than it used to be—a good thing—and has a bigger audience than ever with the Web. But, he says, the technological and economic issues are very real twin threats. "I'm mainly concerned that journalism be able to support democracy," Raphael says. "That means informing citizens, acting as a watchdog on powerful institutions, circulating political opinions, and fostering a conversation that connects different elements of society. We need to find new ways to pay professional journalists, not just amateurs or self-interested experts, to do a good deal of this work … We need to support journalists in ways that insulate them from pressure—political, economic, and even some kinds of popular pressure."
SOS means "Steal Our Stories"
Back in 2007, Stephen Engelberg was managing editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., where he'd landed after a distinguished 18-year tenure at The New York Times as an investigative editor, foreign correspondent, and national affairs writer. He recognized that difficult times loomed ahead for all newspapers, especially regional metropolitan papers like The Oregonian. Then came a rare opportunity to build from the ground up a new, digital-era journalism startup called ProPublica. A nonprofit funded by the Sandler Foundation, it was to be devoted exclusively to journalism "in the public interest." It was formed specifically because of the gathering fear that serious journalism was being gashed by digital age disruption. Experimental and eyebrow-raising when it launched, ProPublica has already won many of journalism's top awards and has garnered wide respect well outside of journalism circles. Its sustained focus on police abuses and lethal force against citizens in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, has led to numerous indictments and may trigger a federal takeover of the New Orleans Police Department.
What's fascinating is that ProPublica simultaneously epitomizes two things: (1) the promise of what journalism might morph into thanks to the coercive powers of the digital revolution and our rapidly changing world; and (2) how absolutely integral journalism remains to our society as a check on the forces of corruption, exploitation, and wrongdoing, which require reckoning regardless of how much the world around us changes.
ProPublica has broken many of the rules of traditional journalism, starting with its fervent desire to collaborate with other journalistic entities and with its readers and viewers. A section of their website encourages people to "Steal Our Stories." That's a sentiment and practice straight out of the Web 2.0/ digital era manifesto and mindset.
Likewise, ProPublica has aggressively embraced technology, developing news apps and innovative tools to seed collaboration with users and journalist colleagues. Its reporters and editors also have taken advantage of the scale and velocity of the Web as a dissemination tool.
One of ProPublica's best moments in 2010 also was one of journalism's best moments in 2010. A series of reports called Dollars for Docs by journalists Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein revealed that many of the physicians who earn the highest amounts of pharmaceutical company speakers' fees and drug endorsement dollars, sums upwards of $200,000 annually, are doctors who have compiled disturbing histories of discipline and misconduct. To research the story, ProPublica built a tool that mines the intentionally opaque databases used by pharmaceutical companies.
"It was pretty clear that although these companies had been saying that they had only picked the best and the brightest to give speeches, I'd venture to say they hadn't even Googled them," Engelberg says. "They had no idea of some of these doctors' backgrounds."
As part of the series, which was launched with multiple media partners including The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio, ProPublica designed a database of doctors and drug endorsers that allows citizens anywhere in America to search for their doctor's name. "At this point, anybody in the United States can punch in the name of their doctor and see if their doctor is giving speeches for big drug companies. That's the kind of knowledge that allows people to hold their doctors accountable," Engelberg says.
One strong admirer of ProPublica, Ethan Zuckerman, is one of the creators and founders of Global Voices, another young journalism venture that cultivates a less investigative voice than ProPublica but shares its digital-age values.
A global network of citizen journalists who are vetted by a small professional editorial staff, Global Voices has succeeded in introducing a new generation of intelligent, fresh voices and perspectives into the media ecology. This is something that likely would never have happened were it left up to traditional, pre-digital era media.
Global Voices serves as a terrific forum for cultural encounters. Many of its writers are young people who craft articles and multimedia pieces about issues of concern to their village or community or their country and get to have them presented on a global stage.
Yet, for all of Global Voices' virtues, even Zuckerman is deeply concerned about its lack of success so far in influencing policy agendas and redirecting powerful players and forces around the world. Further, the unique lens Global Voices has given him into global affairs has reinforced his sense of the criticality of enterprise journalism. For example, if not for the work of professional Nigerian journalists and 234 Next, a publication run by Africa's only Pulitzer Prize winner, Dele Olojede, a former foreign editor of Newsday, Nigerians might never have discovered the whereabouts of their stricken president's body, or about rampant corruption and bribery among government officials.
"Someone needs to be finding facts," says Zuckerman. "There is real reporting that has to be done, so that we can all act as civic actors on a local, national, and global scale. What's really hard is we appear to be willing to hand over that work to organizations like the Associated Press and Reuters who, to be perfectly honest, don't do that work all that well.
"So I would say we're rapidly heading toward some sort of a crisis point around several different types of journalism. I would say that investigative journalism, statehouse journalism, and international journalism are three spaces where I am deeply worried about our ability to provide high-quality coverage over the long term," Zuckerman said.
Two other factors further complicate the crisis in fact-finding and accountability journalism: the hyperpartisan nature of the media and political environment in the United States (a situation in which newspapers and media players have served as accomplices if not primary agents); and the uncertainty around the financial sustainability of the many promising new journalism entrants like ProPublica, which are completely dependent on contributions and foundations.
"The reason ProPublica exists is because of the possibility that the free market and its invisible hand will not address the journalistic needs of the country," ProPublica's Engelberg says. "If we don't have a vibrant and aggressive statehouse press in our state capitols and in every town and city that collects taxpayer money, the chances of abuse clearly rise. Public entities that aren't watched are more likely to abuse. There is no question about that.
"And there is no question there are fewer watchdogs today," Engelberg said. "We have lost tens of thousands of journalistic jobs in the United States. Even if places were overstaffed and even if some of the things they did did not qualify as watchdog or accountability journalism, there is no question valuable parts of our democracy have been lost. And it is not clear how—or if—we will replace those things."
The vet reporter and the blogger
Weary but dauntless, the disheveled reporter confronts the arrogant, ambitious, chiseled congressman in his Capitol Hill office late one night and tells him all the details of the murderous conspiracy he's involved in will be laid out in the next day's newspaper. The congressman grins, all scoff. Despite his entanglement in a corporate cover-up and the murder of his mistress, he's supremely confident he can weather the storm. Nobody reads newspapers anymore. Besides, the attention span of the American public is shallower than ever. The reporter fires back, perhaps more hoping what he's about to say is true than believing it: "You know, in the middle of all this gossip and speculation that permeates people's lives, I still think they know the difference between real news and bullshit. And they're glad that someone cares enough to get things on the record and print the truth."
While exchanges like that have taken place between politicians and journalists thousands of times, that is actually the climactic scene from the film State of Play. The film—which stars Russell Crowe as a veteran journalist, Ben Affleck as a corrupt congressman, and Rachel McAdams as an upstart blogger at the same newspaper Crowe's character works for—embodies much of the dicey state of newspapers, journalism, and democracy.
The film closes with Crowe's old-school journalist, "Cal McAffrey," and McAdams' digital version, "Della Frye," walking out of the newsroom together. Their combined talents and sensibilities have delivered a sensational exposé and their newspaper survives for another day, although its fictional corporate owner is demanding better financials.
If newspapers and journalism are to develop new models so they can thrive into the future, it will require investment, experimentation, and tremendous effort on the part of foundations, philanthropists, academics, social entrepreneurs, community leaders, citizen groups, and journalists themselves.
I recently had occasion to be inside the newsrooms of two newspapers in California, one in the northern part of the state and the other in the south. It wasn't that long ago both places were laced with reporters and editors covering their communities. The newsroom in Southern California that once had 165 editorial employees now has 10. The newsroom in Northern California: 70 percent of its editorial staff is gone.
It was only in 2009 that The Boston Globe was facing the very real prospects of being sold; one of the leading suitors was a private equity company based in Beverly Hills, Calif. But something remarkable happened. Key community leaders raised serious concerns about the newspaper's fate, and subscribers eventually accepted an increase in cost of up to 50 percent depending on where they lived. The potential sale eventually unraveled because the parties couldn't come to terms, and in 2010 The Globe published a devastating series on the state's probation department that exposed systemic fraud, extortion, and conspiracy that has resulted in immediate intervention by federal authorities.
"There was a lot of concern within the community about what life in our community would be like without a news organization like The Globe playing a constructive role," Baron, the editor, says. "People who in the past had taken us for granted no longer did so. We received a lot of support. We did significantly raise the price of the paper. And while some took that as an opportunity to no longer take the paper, the vast majority said they were willing to pay more."
There is also a new generation of up-and-coming journalists who are as fluent and instinctive with digital-age technology as they are intelligent, probing, and skeptical about the dominant forces in society and the criticality of an informed citizenry. One of the best examples is Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif., a progressive media organization dedicated to training young journalists, ages 14 to 24, as producers, writers, and reporters. I have become very familiar with Youth Radio in my work with the MacArthur Foundation's digital media and learning initiative. Their high-quality, youth-produced journalism appears regularly on National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, and iTunes and has been picked up by sites including CNN, MTV News, The BBC, and Gawker. In 2010, their story of the hidden abuses of gays in the military, which first aired on NPR's "All Things Considered," won several of journalism's top prizes. Their young staff also produced standout coverage of the highly controversial shooting of a 22-year-old man, Oscar Grant, by a BART officer at a train station. They leverage new media in the reporting, production, and distribution of their stories, but they also demonstrate old-fashioned journalistic instincts. Their success in their award-winning pieces in 2009 on the abuse of a gay sailor and a wider culture of misconduct in the Navy has heightened their resolve to do more watchdog journalism. They are also in the midst of a project that has two dozen of their young media producers teaming up with professional app developers to create five news and information apps that serve real-life community needs. One of the major themes they've chosen to focus on is food equity, a disturbingly under-covered subject in the traditional media. "I'm really seeing the urgency of investigative reporting and the role that young people can play," says Elisabeth Soep, senior producer and research director for Youth Radio.
Yet, even as this story was being written, a new chapter in the troubled affairs of journalism had opened up. The U.S. Justice Department, in the wake of the Wikileaks saga involving the controversial release of diplomatic cables that the government said had compromised security and safety, said it was investigating whether it could prosecute Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for revealing the secrets. Regardless of the merits of the arguments, the enigmatic players involved in the cables' release, and even the journalistic standing of Wikileaks, pursuing criminal sanctions against those who disseminate classified information the government doesn't want people to know about is alarming and contrary to the intent and purposes of America's First Amendment. The arguments being leveled are similar to those lodged—unsuccessfully—in the wake of The New York Times' stories about the Bush Administration's unlawful eavesdropping on American citizens. While it is obvious that the government would want to keep such activity classified, that is why newspapers and journalistic organizations exist: to keep people informed.
There is a long-standing, even healthy tradition of tension between public institutions and their mission to protect, and the press and its mission on behalf of the people's right to know. But there is, and always will be, good reason for Thomas Jefferson's oft-cited observation that, forced to choose, he would choose to have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers.
“I don’t have much hope of government aiding in the preservation of journalism,” says Professor Gardner from Harvard. “Indeed, large segments of the government, on the left as well as the right, would just as soon that newspapers and journalism slither away, so that they could do brainwashing without the free exchange of ideas
and uncensored news which is the hallmark of a free society.”