01 September 2010

Groping for Relevance in Journalism*

It’s no secret that the journalism business—newspapers especially—is in the dumps. Profits are sinking, circulation keeps plummeting, and opinion polls show distrust in the media is growing: in 2009, the Pew Research Center found that only 29 percent of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight, while 63 percent say that news stories are often inaccurate. (Read longtime journalist James Fallows chapter Why We Hate the Media, in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, for thoughts on why).

None of this is new. I remember attending a meeting when I worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune, in which one of the editors said that the simple habit of reading newspapers was “the only thing keeping this industry from a free-fall.” For a kid just starting out in the business (this was in 2003) it was crushing.

According to various studies, the number of newspaper editorial employees, which numbered more than 60,000 in 1992, fell to around 40,000 in 2009 (see CJR piece referenced below). Circulation has been on the decline since the 1940s.

Many blame the Internet, Google especially, for siphoning content, but Fallows disagrees: “If Google had never been invented, changes in commuting patterns, the coming of 24-hour TV news and online information sites that make a newspaper’s information stale before it appears, the general busyness of life, and many other factors would have created major problems for newspapers.”

“Journalism isn’t necessarily dying,” says a journalist friend at the New Yorker, “[but] the business model that supports it is. I don’t generally advise people to go into it. Most of my colleagues are thinking through their own Plan Bs. It’s a scary time.”

I don’t have the expertise to lay out all the various problems and potential solutions. For that read James Fallows’ June 2010 piece in the Atlantic, How to Save the News and the recent Economist interview with Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and author of What Are Journalists For?

But let’s talk about reporting on Africa. The consensus, based on conversations in the dozen or so countries where I’ve traveled, is that it is woeful. Lazy. Inept. Misleading. Sensational. Cavalier. Dishonest. Out of touch. (There are notable exceptions such as Celia Dugger at the New York Times, The Guardian (UK) and others).

Weak international coverage is also not a new phenomenon (although hard financial times have seen newspapers trimming and/or closing foreign bureaus and an increasing reliance on syndication). This was, after all, what spurred Ted Turner to start CNN—to provide better coverage of non-Western countries.

But the bottom line is, in an increasingly interconnected world, coverage, particularly of Africa, is pitiful.

“I have no idea where I would turn to if I wanted good information on Africa,” says a journalist friend. This is a BIG problem.

But it is a problem that has spawned a sort of new journalism: Africa-hands don’t read mainstream newspapers to get their news about Africa (although we read them for fun and so that we can blog about how bad they are). We read the blogs of other Africa hands, and the kind of specialized reporting that I do for various international agencies and think tanks. In this space, there is a mix of content: some of it is great, a lot of it is mediocre.

Even if the new journalism was amazing, it wouldn't be enough. Trained journalists have a critically important civic role to play, holding those in power to account and providing information and analysis to help average citizens participate in civic life.

“Something is gained when reporting, analysis, and investigation are pursued collaboratively by stable organizations that can facilitate regular reporting by experienced journalists, support them with money, logistics, and legal services, and present their work to a large public,” say Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson in “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Newspapers can, and will, find a way to cope with the challenges. For ideas on how to generate revenue, read Fallows and also Downie and Schudson, who recommend, among other things, that the IRS or Congress authorize independent news organizations that are “substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs to be created as or converted into a nonprofit entity or a low-profit Limited Liability Corporation serving the public interest, regardless of its mix of financial support, including commercial sponsorship and advertising.”

Shutting down print operations, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and many others have done, is probably a good thing for many newspapers (think about the cost of making those enormous rolls of paper, shipping them, the expensive machinery that makes newspapers, delivering them door to door, and doing that everyday). They should also retain their reporting and editorial staff and pay them well—they are newspapers’ most valuable assets.

But maybe the biggest task is to convince people to believe, like we used to, that solid, trustworthy news is worth paying a small fee for. You give a little and get a lot.

But for this to happen, newspapers need to improve their content. In his Atlantic piece, Fallows recounts a conversation he had with the executive who started Google News. As the executive scanned tens of thousands of headlines a day:

“[H]e said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. … their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things… [which] indicated a faddishness of coverage…and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. ‘I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.’”

Newspapers must be willing to take smart risks. The New York Times has a gigantic global readership. Jeffrey Gettleman, their swashbuckling Nairobi bureau chief, writes about 80 percent of their East/Central Africa coverage. This means that, to the extent people get their news about Africa from the Times, one man is telling and shaping the story. News agencies must stop relying on the usual suspects and tap into the huge pool of hungry young journalists who are willing to put in long hours and work for practically nothing. They should broaden their reporting pool and publish unconventional pieces that are fresh, thoughtful, informative and interesting.

“It just seems to me," says Dean Nelson, a San Diego-based journalist, "that we’re in the same place we were a couple hundred years ago when there were dozens of newspapers in every city, each of them perpetuating the political voices that were supporting them. Journalism in America started out as pamphleteering, and now that everyone is a blogger/journalist, we’re back to where we were. Then, when the penny press came along and figured out a way to publish news more cheaply, things changed dramatically. We’re in that era now, where people are trying to figure out how to inform the public, protect democracy, AND make some money. In the meantime, a lot of journalism will continue to be done badly, with the exception of a few outlets who can stand to lose some money while it gets sorted out.”

*This title is based on Eugene Goodwin/Ron Smith’s Groping for Ethics in Journalism, a must read for any journalism student.

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