Newspapers don’t own journalism

I always thought it was odd to hear flat out declarations that there can be no life on other planets in the absence of water. How egocentric! So you’re saying that life can only exist if it’s precisely like us?

Really?

That’s the feeling I’m getting right now in the woe-is-us, hand-wringing sob-fest about whether life and our democracy can survive the death of some newspapers.

With all due respect to some great newspapers where I’ve worked, I don’t give a damn about the paper they’re printed on.

What I care about is journalism.

And you don’t need special 3-D glasses to see that completely fabulous, raise the rafters, award-winning, democracy-preserving journalism is being committed and published many times a day in life forms other than newspapers.

Guess what else?

Some online news operations, including two where I was a top manager, have been profitable for years, while upholding the highest standards of journalism.

Here’s a bit of what I saw from an editor’s perch:

Were we perfect? No.

Was it journalism. You betcha.

For more examples of the kind of journalism that’s been committed outside the world of paper, check out the Online News Association’s awards gallery, whose members range from the BBC News and Frontline to Slate and NewWest.

Fast forward to 2007, when the San Diego public radio station, KPBS, performed an amazing public service by using Twitter and a Google maps mashup on its Website to broadcast alerts and illustrate the danger during the deadly wildfires that swept Southern California.

Then in 2008, there was Josh Marshall’s unflinching journalism at Talking Points Memo, which prompted the resignation of the Attorney General of the United States.

Don’t get hung up on the life form: TPM is published with blog technology, and I get updates thrown on my browser’s front lawn by Twitter via RSS, (thank you Dave W!).

Update: And anyone who didn’t see Marcy Wheeler’s breathtakingly good journalism from the blog Emptywheel quoted on the front page of the New York Times, well check out the story right here.

That’s the kind of journalism that helps me sleep well at night.

I spent the first 20 years of my career inside print newsrooms, and I have nothing but admiration for the print folks whose journalism has made the world a better place. (Check out the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism. I’m proud to be on that list, in the company of a team of reporters from the late, great, Dallas Times Herald.)

It is precisely out of respect for those journalistic achievements that I will not lament the demise of newspapers that ignore the public good. David Simon details such a case in this chilling piece in the Washington Post. I’ve also written about instances where having a monopoly on the newspaper market turned watchdogs into sycophantic, naval-gazing, paper tigers. Those newspapers – and the corporations that own them – deserve to decompose with the fish.

But those forces no longer control the conversation – if they ever did. This is spring again, a time for celebration.

Centuries ago, the discovery of movable type meant that Martin Luther no longer needed permission from the Pope to publish his work.

And today, our ideas, conversations and questions won’t be stifled when the newspaper owners run out of cash and ink and stop their giant presses.

We control our own free presses with funny names, like Drupal and Joomla and WordPress, YouTube and Blip and Twitter, Flickr and Utterli and Ning.

And yes, Virginia, there really is a healthy and irrepressible thing called journalism.

Update: Please forgive my unintentional sins of omission and add the following to the list of great un-paper journalism: Politico, The Huffington Post, MarketWatch, Pegasus News and Voice of San Diego.
I will gladly add more as folks knock the cobwebs from my brain!

23 thoughts on “Newspapers don’t own journalism

  1. I share your perspective. I am a huge, huge fan of journalism and newspapers closing down breaks my heart because it means that newsrooms, the homes of so many talented and brilliant people, will close their doors and force them all to scatter. Point being… they will scatter but they will still be around (hopefully they WILL stick around). I do look forward to, eventually, seeing the work of those great journalists move to a different medium.

    Times will be tough but the world always finds its way back to homeostasis.

  2. Char, interesting insight. However, the biggest problem I have with the new world of journalism is, as you would say, there increasingly (outside of the legitimate news organizations) is no adult supervision. Anybody can put up a shingle and call themselves a “journalist.” Trouble is they don’t know the rules. They certainly don’t understand libel. They wouldn’t know “reporting” if it smacked them in the face. I once thought the blurring of these lines would hash itself out. I’m not so sure anymore, but this much I know: There will be a weird comeuppance some day for some of these journalists/non-journalists. I’m just not sure what it will be and when it will be but libel will play a role.

    • You raise a very good point. Just like democracy, that free press thing can be pretty messy, though we agree they are better than the alternatives!

  3. Bullshit.

    By the time a new online model of STATE and LOCAL reporting is achieved, the vast institutional memory of so many regional and municipal newspapers will have been dissipated. Many, if not most, will no longer be in journalism. And those who might have majored in journalism with an ambition to report for such entities will have engineering and business degrees instead, particularly in this economic climate.

    Oh brave new world. To be a corrupt or incompetent state or local bureaucrat or police official or elected personage over the next fifteen years, with hardly a care in the world.

    The capacity of the talking heads and new pundits of the internet to underestimate the importance of basic beat reporting is, seemingly and against all evidence (re: Simon’s article), really remarkable. You think so highly of the new medium that you are oblivious to the fact that no one has
    come close to creating a delivery system for state and local beat reporting — which is the fundamental by which corruption, incompetence and indifference is discovered and challenged.

    Citizen journalist my ass.

  4. @ Not really,

    Great investigative journalism can exist outside of newspapers.

    As illustrated by the 11 person staff of the online-only Voice of San Diego, which has uncovered several government scandals and does a fine job of delivering important news about the workings of San Diego to it’s readers.

    http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/

    It might be rough for awhile but so long as the public has an interest in fighting corruption (and therefore saving money) there will emerge a method to do so.

    And with a more diverse funding method, many of these new institutions will care more about what kind of difference they actually make than how many readers or advertisers they can attract.

  5. “Not really,” I love your handwringing.

    Oh, whatever did we do before colleges and universities began awarding journalism degrees? When reporting was a blue-collar profession?

    You don’t need a degree in journalism, or even a degree, to do investigative OR beat reporting. As more and more bloggers–Joshua Micah Marshall and Marcy Wheeler, to name just two– have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    News flash–lots of corrupt officials are already getting away with murder because “professional,” degreed journalists, all the way up the line, are unwilling to get their local officials pissed at them, risk their precious “access,” or — in the case of the Village — an invite to the Washington Press Corps Annual Dinner because they had the nerve to offend the powerful with actual questions on substantive issues.

    But then I’m one of those beknighted souls who believe that reporters would do better to have a degree in a specific discipline, with an eye toward reporting in that discipline (although it’s not really a requirement, the way a sense of curiosity and the energy to investigate in-depth instead of accepting and writing The Conventional Wisdom is–or should be). The “journalism” part can always be taught as writing and beginning legal/sociological electives. No professional certification or licensing = no “degree” required.

  6. I agree with Sharoney – journalism is a skill. No degree required. Lots of high school kids can do journalism better than some “pros” out there. And the pro press is often way too cushy with the local big-wigs. At my first newspaper job I was sent to the Rotary Club meeting by the managing editor. Before I went, I was summoned to the publisher’s office. It was the only time I ever set foot in there. His Rotarian plaque was on the wall and he gave me a stern lecture as to how to cover the Rotary. I was told to eat the lunch and cover the speech. This was not the Washington Post and the Rotary was a civic organization. Basically, I was to write a fluff piece. Of course I did it – he was the boss. So a little independent coverage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not saying that small town Rotary Clubs are destroying civilization. But there is plenty of “good ‘ol boy” networking going on there.

  7. Just as “media” is not an indentifiable item (nor singular), “journalism” defies easy description. I work in online journalism, so I see its value every day. But I also do media research, so I know the numbers behind the stories.

    Newspapers are not fading away. Metros are in trouble because of the debt load they took on in their feeding frenzy, but the small papers around the country are doing well. (Check the latest of my fortnightly research roundup at http://rji.missouri.edu/research/stories/roundup.php )

    The online/print issue boils down to business model more than journalism. Actual story readership for print is higher than online, but the cost of online and wider availability of it is appealing to all of us. The major issue with online is that readers really don’t like the ads, so they don’t ring cash registers. And that means revenues are low.

    So what? You can make enough to support yourself, right? That would be find if we could fund enough reporters to fill the niche local newspapers now fill. So far, we have not developed a replacement strategy.

    My personal theory of the 21st century newspaper crash is that the Wall Street investment model that started in the 1970s is sinful. Read about my comparison of newspapers to farms at http://rji.missouri.edu/projects/citizens-journalism/stories/farm_the_news/index.php.

    Clyde Bentley
    Missouri School of Journalism

  8. Never in history has there been such an opportunity to weave together such rich, illuminating stories in ways that truly align with how the brain reads (physically changes), learns, retains and mixes with emotions to affect action(s). Not unlike adding sound, color, special effects to films.

    And like film, all the bells and whistles are meaningless if the story/content is weak. When size became more important than substance (and trust), newspapers began undermining their true value to their customers. Then when the evolution of technology once again freed information and knowledge from the Gatekeepers and there were real alternatives to the force- fed pablum, many became truly a waste of time.

    When the No. 1 priority became making money (by incurring debt, no less) at the expense of the product and doing so with an almost boastful damn-the-stupid-readers-what-the-heck-
    could-they-possibly-know-about-the-best-way-for-me-to-
    make-my-bonus attitude, they weren’t newspapers anymore, they became little more than the ad sheet that comes in the mailbox everyday. Many became just plain insulting. And I know that I have more productive, informative and enlightening things to do with my time and money (including one or two papers, magazines, books and a lot of online sources, yes, bloggers – some very smart and thoughtful folks out there). And I’m not alone.

    The writing has been on the wall for a long time, but many refused to see. There could have been a less painful evolution, with a much-improved, more useful and beneficial product – the perfect offline/online blend – worth paying for. But that would mean focusing on creating a product customers wanted.

    I think it says volumes – so sadly- that there really isn’t a
    strong, citizen-based movement to try to save the industry or
    at least to show support. It’s not about it’s current form, about
    what is; it’s about what it isn’t…but could be.

    I’m a former reporter and I believe very strongly in the need for good journalism. I believe it is still possible – Thank you Pro Publica, The Nation, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Wired, The Economist, Financial Times, McClatchy’s Washington bureau, NPR/PBS, etc. I would give anything to have a good local paper that believed in the beat system again and that would provide me with information and insight I need to understand better the truly important things that are going on in the community that impact the most lives. I’d buy that and read it first. I’ll light a candle and leave a light on.

  9. My pet peeve about journalists—be it print, radio, television, or the web—is the absolute lack of grammar that I have been seeing/hearing these days.

    What made me think of that? Rob Ponte’s “about the workings of San Diego to it’s readers.” Can you spot the error? It should be “its” and not “it’s.” (Clive Bentley did it correctly!)

    Another example is the use of “that” when referring to a person, when “who” is the proper usage. It is like fingers on a chalkboard every time I hear it!

    CNN’s ticker on TV all too often has glaring spelling and/or grammar errors. Reuter’s online isn’t much better.

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  11. All these people who are so agog at the idea of a world without physical, in-hand newspapers sound nuts.

    Yeah, I’m a journalist. I love newspapers. I was lucky enough to twice work for newspapers where they were printed on in-house presses (nothing, but nothing, can replace the incredible sensation of watching newspapers come off the presses.)

    “Citizen journalists” aren’t journalists. Many of the online sites listed as great sources of internet journalism are politically slanted sites with slanted writing.

    In a democracy, what’s needed is objective, unbiased reporting. Now you can contemplate your “memes” all you want about the definition of “unbiased,” but the vast majority of people, like pornography, know it when they see it. If you’re having issues defining it, rest assured, it’s probably because the term “unbiased” isn’t in your vocabulary.

    The problem I have with online journalism, sans objective editorial control, is that there’s no way of vetting the information you’re getting. You don’t know if it’s true or not. You don’t know how much you can trust what you’re being told.

    That gatekeeper function of a legitimate newspaper cannot be fulfilled by online, gonzo jerks, running around, telling everyone they’re the “new media.”

    One other thing a real reporter knows. You can’t sit on your ass and do your job. You have to get up, get out there, and do all the boring grunt work to get the story. Many of our “new journalists” think having a database and a wireless connection fulfills that function. It does not, no more so than downloading documents and being unable to interpret what they mean is journalism.

    Sorry so many of my colleagues from “old media” despise and downgrade their own profession. I’m not really that surprised. Every newsroom has its contingent of bottom feeders, the ones who never, ever get it, and who never, ever do the work needed to do to get the story.

    • Katy,
      I think you missed my point.
      I’m talking about journalism.
      My point is that award-winning, world-improving, high standards journalism has been and is being committed outside of newspapers.
      And that’s something to celebrate!

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  14. Charlotte-Anne, I agree there are Web sites producing outstanding journalism. But the point of David Simon’s column, which you linked to, actually conflicts with your post.

    Simon wrote:

    “There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

    Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

    I didn’t trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that’s the point. …”

    The point is, good journalism takes time and effort. Someone has to pay for this valuable work. What is the new financial model that can make this happen?

    • One not-so-new financial model is the one that made TheStreet.com quite profitable and able to pay for the great journalism that I was lucky to edit when I worked there, starting in 1999.
      There are other models, including some that work. Check out what’s going on at New West and West Seattle blog, both of which are doing very well, financially and journalistically. Others may work and some may not, but hopefully those that don’t will “fail forward” and help us get there.
      I think Simon makes my point: Some newspapers have ignored the public good. I do not lament their demise.
      Rather, I celebrate the Talking Points Memos of the world who step into the void to show us that you can both do good and do well.

  15. For Clyde:

    “That would be fine if we could fund enough reporters to fill the niche local newspapers now fill. So far, we have not developed a replacement strategy.”

    Traditional media companies are taking care of that gap by shedding experienced, smart, talented journalists every day.

    Many of them will not be able to walk away from the profession, despite low pay.

    And they will be hungry.

    Keep watching.

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  18. True, newspapers do not own journalism.
    Technology has advanced what was true Constitutionally into reality for anyone with access to a keyboard.
    Despite the healthy news of growing individual activity, many readers/viewers retain greater trust in news that comes by paper and screen from companies that work in printing plants, studios and office buildings.
    These conventional media are at crisis point with traditional supporters and careerists desperate for answers.
    Solutions probably will not come from managers/staffers on the inside handling daily tasks of survival, busy with ever more attempts at communal sharing and electronic re-tooling of their product.
    Concerned leaders with assets of conscience (possibly outsiders and alumni of the news business) are needed for this rescue.
    These should be people who recognize the priorities of reliable content, advertising, production and distribution.
    They should be joined in this turnaround effort by others who run major foundations—Carnegie, MacArhur, Pew, Rockefeller—grantors who understand resources and how to apply them with impact to benefit communities. “National conversations” on what’s wrong with the news media and how they got that way are an academic luxury at this point.
    Yes, the causes are important, but other able groups can study them for later conclusions. Symptoms and prognoses already seem well known and beyond the need for more study.
    What’s critical now is a hard-nosed selection of do-able strategies to keep the news media functioning through this decade. A reshaping of roles and products for the longer haul could come after the current bleeding is stopped.
    A national media survival strategy group would have to be a face- forward panel with the kind of unfettered outlooks that developed the public-private Amtrak system, public broadcasting, postal reorganization, public programs for universities, community action agencies and the performing arts.
    Such a group needs to wrestle with the options of now: The news media may need to be transformed into an assemblage of financially-redesigned processes, offering temporary relief and urgent services from a public-private escrow fund, a source media interests will be obligated to replenish after the crisis has been met.
    This is not to be confused with a FEMA response, or a GM takeover, but more like a Marshall Plan with an emphasis on growth as well as survival. It would include systems of orderly recovery and new fiscal relationships to sustain the gathering and delivery of information and news to the public.
    Loans, tax subsidies and sharing of direction/management with the earlier-mentioned foundations (already tax exempt, of course) are among relief options to be considered in pursuing life-support toward recovery.
    Firewalls would be erected to insulate content from the new public-private-non profit financial alliance.
    A gathering of true problem solvers might take an act of national political leadership to mobilize.
    If that seems unthinkable, compare it with extinction.
    Thanks for considering, John E. Simonds.

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