(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 money.
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 “content.”
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, “We’re 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 Star, 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.