Reporters, and why we need them.

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

I had a chance tonight to watch part three of Lowell Bergman’s Frontline ‘News War’ opus titled What’s Happening to the News, and like the Linda Ellerbee documentary of a couple of years back, it chronicled the ongoing demise of American Journalism in the hands of publicly-held companies, whose managers in spasms of simplemindedness, throw up their hands and say that “Wall Street says make more money this year than last.

Doesn’t matter if you’re making refrigerators or investigating pedophile congressmen. Make more money this year than last. Show growth. Grow…or…die?

On a day where Wall Street rode a plunging roller coaster fueled apparently by fears about the Asian economy and a “computer glitch or two” (we’ll see how that plays out), it seemed even more absurd to have any respect at all for a system of capitalism that preaches blind growth above all.

“Cutting, cutting, cutting is not a strategy for survival.” I’m paraphrasing the former editor of the L.A. Times, John Carroll. Well, exactly right. By definition, in fact. But it’s one of the only tools moneymen have to show growth. There are only so many ways to pull rabbits from hats.

Bergman, himself a relic and refugee from the old, pre-Lawrence Tisch CBS News, has no shortage of greying heads to choose from to talk about how broadcast journalism used to be a mission of public service, and no shortage either of slightly younger shareholder-friendly replacements (like ABC News head David Westin) willing to redefine news as “anything people are interested in.” Westin also gives us the (I’m paraphrasing here) “what do you expect? We have so many hours to fill.” rationalization that he thinks excuses himself. Sorry, no.

It’s a rationalization that accounts for about 85% of the shiny moving objects we’re distracted by on YouTube, and of course embraces prime time television “newsmagazines” that have, like Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” have gone full Chayefsky on us, with shiny abominations that are placed in a container marked journalism, but which fulfill none of the minimum daily requirements.

When our local affiliate carries more American Idol coverage than any other content in their 10 o’clock hour (I am not kidding) we see the New News Managers, guided by that memo from Wall Street, in full flower. Oh, well, there’s so much time to fill, and so relatively few apartment fires and car crashes.

The broadcast recounts the sad decline of network news almost in passing, and then turns to the youthful-ish Yahoo and Google managers, who seem to back away, way away, from the prospect of having a payroll-full of their own darn reporters, but who also recognize that if newspapers and their reporting staffs evaporate, they are so screwed.

The broadcast tries to assert, in telling the increasingly ugly Los Angeles Times/Tribune Company story, that more voices on the national and international stage—covering the big Pulitzer-worthy projects are needed…and I don’t disagree, but I also see those same entities as being the best places for micro-scale, hyperlocal journalism. I think you say yes to both.

Yeah, I’m an eternal news idealist. I just want whoever’s left in news management to wake up to the sobering realities and take a pledge. Here’s what I’m thinking, in convenient bullet point form.

  • We want, need, and celebrate lots of reporters, at every level, everywhere. There’s money out there in the vast system of internet television and print to pay their salaries. Get lots of them. Get spares.
  • Deploy them to Iraq and to every local school board meeting. Scrutinize enormous corporations and petty tyrants in small town councils. Learn the lessons of modern database journalism and pour what all of what they find into vast databases that are easily parsed, leafed through, thought about, and even occasionally printed out on good old fashioned paper.
  • Spend the energy and resources on gathering the information, and don’t worry that much about style and ‘storytelling.’ That can come, will come. But without the information, there can be no real storytelling—you get something like what cable news is now, which is nonstop speculation and prediction and froth.
  • Don’t worry about Craigslist. Don’t forget how to sell advertising by not forgetting the power of simple, local advertising that small companies can afford to try.
  • Make a fine profit, but don’t mandate that it must increase year upon year. If that’s a nonstarter in the land of public companies, if that means that these collections of reporters must all be employed by non-profits like the Poynter Institute and NPR, so be it. Maybe Wall Street has no place making a business out of journalism.
  • Release their hard-gathered content out there freely and widely into the cosmic mixmaster that is the internet, and be sincerely flattered as it is sliced, diced, repeated, and blogged upon.
  • Lobby for openness and transparency in government and business as if our democracy depends on it. It of course, does.
  • Be as open in your business as you want government and the corporate world to be in theirs.
  • Look upon this as a mission of public service, and do your best to live up to that charge in your conduct and ethics.

Ah, easy for me to say. Easy for me to hope. And, because Frontline (and PBS) is one of those aging journalistic institutions trying to stay as relevant online as on-air, easy for you to watch the whole show and read and view much more on their site. It’s worth your time.