Where There is Journalism, There is Hope

(Note: The following is the final chapter from my
forthcoming book, “The Last Newspaper.” It’s printed here with permission from,
well, myself…

“The one thing most likely to make the public value newspapers is
newspapers valuing the public.”

— Paul Bradshaw, senior lecturer in online journalism
at Birmingham City University

THERE IS A POPULAR TWITTER channel that tracks layoffs,
financial struggles and whatever gloom and doom happens to be falling on the
traditional media industry. Called “The Media is Dying,” the tweets read like
epitaphs. Thousands of journalists follow the stream, mostly to see if their publication
is the next to suffer.

There are digital tombstones like this everywhere. It seems
like there are more people writing about failing newspapers than there are
journalists working for them. The Associated Press is facing major layoffs,
while Politico, an online news site, hired a former Washington Post editor to
start a local news operation in Washington, D.C., which itself will hire 50
people including two dozen reporters.

The Observer Newspaper, the world’s oldest Sunday paper, may
close because of poor financial performance. And the Tribune Company, in
addition to shrinking staff, is also shrinking the width of its papers to save

Yet the future is bright. Yes, that’s what I said. For where
there is journalism, there is hope. However, we also need journalists to do a
lot of the work.

Now I’m not going to head down the path of belittling or
underestimating the power of citizen journalists – one only needs to remember
the iconic images of the London Underground bombings in 2005, the first-hand
reports of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, or the Tweets heard ‘round the
world about the Iranian elections in 2009 to be convinced.

But citizens don't need to learn
how to be journalists – instead, journalists need to learn how to re-connect
with their communities and earn back the public’s trust.

Journalists can start by not blaming
technology for all of their problems. The Internet didn’t force the Los Angeles
Times to stop covering City Hall (if anything, the wide availability of national
and international news should have had the opposite effect.) The Internet didn’t
turn once respected reporters like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly into cult
leaders, or give a former sports anchor a prime time political bull whip. The
Internet didn’t tell Jayson Blair to lie, Judith Miller to report government
propaganda or Ann Coulter to go bat shit crazy (the voices in her head did that.)

We expect Fox News and TMZ to “flood
the zone” with tasteless and baseless drivel designed to bait and anesthetize an
already fearful public. But we needed – and still need – real journalists to
fill the void with news that matters. We need them to talk to us, work with us,
and help us regain the sense of community that’s been lost within a cacophony of

Journalists need to get back on
the “beat,” forget about technology and focus on sociology, humanity, community
and, most important, their Constitutional duty to watch those who would watch
over us. They need to be hyper local, hyper personal and medium agnostic in their
reporting. Journalists need to stop being led and learn how to lead once more.

As I said, where there is
journalism, there is hope. And there is a lot of hope out there if you know
where to look:

  • Pierre Omidyar,
    an investor who backed early (and now failed) citizen journalism startups
    Backfence and Bayosphere, is starting a non-profit news service in Hawaii that
    will be staffed with professional journalists. As Omidyar says on his blog, “
    a small, fast-moving entrepreneurial team dedicated to bringing civic affairs
    journalism and analysis to our community in a commercially sustainable way. We
    combine our social media and online community experience with a passion for
    journalism in the public interest.”  
    This is an emerging trend that’s worth following and
    supporting, a sort of “NPR” model that requires journalists to work with their
    communities both for stories and ongoing funding.

  • Some reporters
    are taking matters into their own hands, such as former Florida Sun-Sentinel
    reporter Jerry Lower, who took a loan against his house to start The Coastal
    , a hyper local offline and online newspaper serving the Delray Beach area.
    His paper is turning a profit, as is Health News Florida, a niche as well as
    local news site run by former Orlando Sentinel reporter Carol Gentry. Her
    non-profit model leverages a variety of funding sources, typically in small
    amounts from multiple foundations and organizations.

  • Jay Rosen,
    professor of journalism at New York University, was one of the first to coin
    the term “Pro Am” journalism, where professional reporters and the lay public
    work together to cover the news. Early examples include the
    Northwest Voice
    (backed by the Bakersfield Californian),
    My Missourian from Columbia, Mo., and
    Rosen’s own (albeit now defunct) Assignment Zero. I’m no expert in why
    Assignment Zero failed and why other experiments survived, but I have to
    believe it’s due, at least in part, to focusing on being smaller. Just look at
    ChicagoNow, a local blog hub started by the Chicago Tribune Media Group but run
    entirely “by Chicagoans for Chicagoans.” The site focuses on stories people can’t
    get from the bigger, more traditional ChicagoTribune.com – and for those
    stories it turns to more than 120 local bloggers who are experts in the kind of
    minutia of daily civic life that only a taxpaying resident could love. The
    bloggers are paid $5 per 1,000 page views and are encouraged to comment and
    interact with the community.

Local, local, and then more local
news – this, to me, is the key to journalism’s rebirth. People will support it
and advertisers will pay for it (imagine, reaching people who can actually go
into your store.) This isn’t about a “paper,” it’s about reporting – in words,
in video, online or on mobile. Follow the story and follow your audience, then
apply whatever technology makes sense.

Sometimes this also means
recognizing and raising the voices within your community – journalists are also
great aggregators and should leverage the social web for stories and
collaboration, such as Robert Quigley of the Austin-American Statesman, who
uses Twitter to find the best local information as well as share relevant news
from the paper itself.

Local news is bigger than ever –
according to a study by the National Newspaper Association, 86 million
Americans still read local newspapers every week, and 60 percent say the
newspaper is their primary source of information about their community.

Yes, the future of news is bright
even though the outlook is dim. Besides, we can’t give up on journalism, for if
we do that, we are giving up on ourselves. We would be giving away our rights
and a freedom that nearly every other society in the world would love to
experience, and whose people and journalists are dying almost every day for
that privilege.

“I believe in the
profession of journalism,” wrote Walter Williams, the first dean of the
Missouri School of Journalism, in 1908. “I believe that the public journal is a
public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their
responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service
than the public service is betrayal of this trust…

“I believe that the journalism which succeeds best — and
best deserves success — fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent,
unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never
careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always
unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of
privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as
far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so,
an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting
international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of
humanity, of and for today's world.”

I believe in the profession of journalism, still. I believe
in the hope it transmits and the values it embodies. And I believe the time has
come to embrace journalism again.

3 thoughts on “Where There is Journalism, There is Hope

  1. I think your points are generally well-taken, Gary. But representatives of and apologists for the mainstream media would earn more credibility if they would admit the bias of media outlets other than Fox News…

  2. Well, Gary, you remain insightful and diplomatic as always… but let’s face it, you worked in daily print journalism and most of the people writing as “reporters” are just not that good. So let’s not automatically lament a thinning of a herd that missed a bogus run-up to the Iraq war (watch Bill Moyers “Selling the War” and weap) and just pretty much sucks across the board — look, highly paid media executives did some empire building to increase their paychecks and then things went south — some papers are over-leveraged and face real trouble. The execs can fess up, give back their bonus money, or blame the Internet and the economy.
    But here’s the thing — still — why haven’t any big-time urban dailies closed? They are the most hurt because they can’t get local enough quickly enough. (And if you even thought “Rocky Mountain News” or “Seattle PI” closed, then just go back to your world where blogs tell you all you need to know, because of course both of those were JOA papers, and they closed because that particular exemption to the U.S. Monopoly laws is a death sentence — always has been. Odd that was left out of reporting, wasn’t it?)
    And in Boston and other places, is it not interesting how all the “close the doors” talk echoes in and around union negotiations? Just an odd turn of events.
    The point is that newspapers are hit like every business in these times — but the local-local ones, the ones doing exactly as this post suggests, are holding their own. If their corporate overlords didn’t borrow against them too heavily, they’ll be fine. Otherwise, how long is this death of newspapers BS going to be tolerated? Did you people buy into Y2K? Fess up — did you stock food or not? And yet you trust your opinion now?
    How much do I believe in newspapers? I sold a house, got some partners and launched a daily newspaper last year in Portland, Maine. It’s the decade of the wolf at the door; a poor time to be sheep.

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