Can newspapers & journalism survive?


Page 6 of 6

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.”

 


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Spring 2011

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