Reinventing Journalism

In March, we wrote about the “deindustrialization” of journalism, the displacement of traditional journalists by the steady closures of newspapers as readers increasingly rely on free online news. . For those in former steel and auto towns like the Mahoning Valley, the story rings familiar: a once great industry displaces experienced workers in search of  cheaper labor and newer technology, while the workers who once fueled the industry are left scrambling for their next paycheck.

In her address to graduates of The Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Barbara Ehrenreich welcomed newcomers to a dying industry and assured them that they have plenty of company as practitioners of a weakened craft in a rapidly shifting economy:

How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper mill workers, construction workers and miners. They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience. They just don’t have jobs.

Through our journalism projects with The Center for Working-Class Studies, we’ve spent time with professionals from some of the trade’s most storied institutions — The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Columbia Journalism Review, and others. We’ve listened to their anxieties, sparked, in part, by diminished job security but also reflecting their genuine concern that the decline of journalism will undermine the future of democracy, which functions best with a concerned, well-informed electorate.

Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Shultz, who often writes about the plight of working-class people, is worried that already under-represented members of society will become invisible if newspapers and other traditional media no longer have the resources to conduct important investigative and enterprise reporting. On the other hand, she suggests that as veteran professionals increasingly find themselves under the ever-present threat of unemployment, “most of us have a lot more in common these days with the people we cover.”As journalists are displaced, they may become better able to understand the struggles and perspectives of working-class people, whose stories have too often been ignored.

Schultz and others are exploring strategies for saving traditional journalism.  Media companies and journalists alike are searching for strategies that might protect not only their own existence, but the future of serious reporting. In a June 28 column, she explains that tighter copyright laws could allow traditional media outlets to own their content for a longer period of time before bloggers and others start posting it on their own sites and pulling readers and advertisers away from the organizations that produced the work in the first place.

Schultz and The Plain Dealer are not the only ones embracing the call for tougher copyright regulations. Cleveland Attorney David Marburger and many newspapers advocate these ramped-up regulations. And while it may be easy to dismiss such attempts as mere self-preservation by what Shultz wryly terms “dinosaurs wheezing toward extinction,” many of the practices of traditional journalism are worth protecting.

Subscribing to this view, Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland introduced legislation in March designed to help newspapers garner non-profit status, allowing them to stay afloat. Both proposals have ignited a firestorm of online chatter and robust debate.

Responding to Shultz’s column, Clint Hendler writes in the Columbia Journalism Review that the proposed copyright tightening is “unworkable, illogical, and unnecessarily legalistic,” and John Temple, the former editor, president and publisher of the late Rocky Mountain News, criticizes Schultz for failing to make a compelling case for how tightening copyright laws will help save newspapers.

And yet he also says the closing of The Rocky Mountain News has had a pronounced negative effect on the community and state it served.  “The watchdog role of the media is being diminished,” Temple says. “There are stories that are never going to be told.” According to Temple, the closing of The Rocky Mountain News is a dramatic reminder about the importance of fostering meaningful innovation that might help the media.

On the other hand, bloggers and citizen journalists might actually help to revitalize traditional media, for if Shultz is correct and traditional journalists begin to feel more empathy with the legions of displaced workers, they might produce more of what we call working-class journalism.

All watchdog journalism is really working-class journalism.  Three principles might characterize this important work:

1.)    Stories rely on multiple sources and treat everyday people with the same weight as official sources;

2.)    Stories show how, ultimately, most political issues are “pocketbook” issues;

3.)    Stories empower everyday citizens by carefully scrutinizing the actions of elected officials and powerful individuals and entities and are produced by journalists brave enough to dispute factual errors and inconsistencies rather than allowing false information to be spouted in the name of “balanced” reporting.

Of course, these principles are not new.  But they were lost as the class and status of the profession shifted. Perhaps, equipped with a renewed mission, empathy, and purpose, journalists might embrace the technology of today, bring to it a sense of urgency and responsibility, and use it to tell important stories effectively.

For instance, many newspapers, including The New York Times, have launched community journalism projects. Some involve hyper-local reporting, while others experiment with new delivery mechanisms. Another new venture is trying to help traditional media organizations earn advertising revenue and understand new business models. Numerous foundations, including the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, are funding experimentation in journalism and journalism education.

No single answer is likely to solve the problems currently plaguing the media. Nor will any one business model reverse years of financial declines.  Instead,the media must consider both new ideas and old practices.  These ideas require constructive debate and discussion.  The future of the media is simply too important.

Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco

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