Friday, November 25, 2005

A Journalist Perspective: On Newspapers and Modernity

So I might want to be a journalist later in life. I like to write. I like to seek the truth. Yet as I stick a finger into the water, I can sometimes be repulsed by the contamination that has occurred through the years. What has happened to the journalism world? I will speak as a journalist in this piece.

In order to answer this, I will ask you first to look at society at large. What has happened to the business world? What has happened to politics? What is happening to values and standards? Before you point the blame on journalists, look at the water you yourself drink and then ask how contaminated the journalism world is. To journalism’s benefit, we are often self critical and after we take a hit, we are not afraid to bash ourselves for problems. This was seen in all the editorials written nationwide after the Judy Miller issue. If a journalist is found guilty of violating ethics, his or her career is ruined for good. Do you see Martha Stewart agreeing to wrongs and eliminating herself from the spotlight? Or instead do you see her newest show being promoted on NBC’s “Apprentice� show a few weeks before she gets released from Prison? I saw the latter. Politics also has become a problem too - look at Tom Delay. Popular culture is no different as well and the media in particular, is responsible for a lot of problems. Keep in mind though, the "media" is different than the "journalism world". Yet I cannot let journalism off the hook here...

It appears in this country that journalists are becoming too timid, and often not confronting the authority – and sometimes ‘daydreaming’ and not even looking to authorities. For example: Bennifer, and celebrity gossip. It is also very common to see feature articles on absolutely nothing relating to modern news, but rather created purely out of a journalist’s need to appeal to an editor. What appeals to an editor to some degree I would say, is sales.

Tom Rosensteil, executive of the Project for Journalism Excellence, stated in a recent journalist forum at the University of New York, that when you look at Pew research, it’s not that people have rejected the values of journalism, or that they think checking the facts is a bad idea. What it boils down to, he argues, is people think the press does what it does to make money and not to serve the public interests – plus some think individual journalists do what they do for their own interests.

After 911, though, the New York Times was a leader in reporting strictly the news and published a paper without ads. The public responded well to this. Rosensteil believes that this type of attitude, combined with a “swashbuckling pirate press,� like how things used to be, is what this country needs to get journalism the respect it deserves. I agree.

This can be accomplished. If you look at most of the newspapers in this country, they are largely independent of the need for subscription. Say a public bombshell was dropped in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for example, the most new paper buys the Sentinel will receive is probably around 1,000. Multiply this by 50 cents for a weekly paper, or even $1.75 for a Sunday edition and the end result is at most around $1,750 dollars at most – roughly equivalent to one full page ad in a paper perhaps – depending on the market. Therefore, there is no need for papers to use yellow journalism tactics. What papers need to do instead is focus on integrity. It is a losing battle to try to go ideologically biased and win for a paper on these grounds as well. If an advertiser sees integrity and a responsive public overtime connected to the high values of a paper staff – that advertisement space will be bought. Advertisements make up roughly 70% of newspaper revenue.

There is another option as well. In this era of blogs and specialization, I see this trend as a direct result of the decline in societal values as mentioned above. As a reaction, people are frustrated and trending towards ideological isolation and contentment in their own views and the shying away from dealing with real, murky facts. A great example is Rush Limbaugh. In addition, people are trending towards general apathy and rejection of all ideology in favor of a modernist approach – which equates to specialization in the long run. A great way to counter all of this then is for some media companies to decide to cover only one specialized area of society and cover it well. One problem with journalism is that the major journalism outlets and even webpages are being controlled by relatively few corporations. Once these corporations have a monopoly, they tend to start cutting staff – leaving about 5 reporters to cover the entire city for example. The end result then is some weak reporting not very much different than one sitting in their basement with enough time on their hands can do. If we can push into the public realm a renewed sense of high level information, then journalists can reclaim their dignified position and the public will be attracted to this higher intellectualism.

Be careful in what you read from this though. The specialized area I am proposing some journalists to dive into should not be ideological and should be fair in the specific niche covered. Take perhaps the economy. The Wall Street Journal has done well to simply concentrate on financial advice and analysis and they are one of the few papers in this country to actually gain a profit from subscriptions. (However, this is in large part due to the fact that their subscribers can write a subscription off as business expenses.) Now the Wall Street Journal has so many resources that it can start to overflow into news and create an excellence there as well. Even if the Wall Street Journal is not the best example of this centering of content then, I believe this centering of a newspaper’s scope will prove to be effective – especially today as a competitor to blogs, and cable television shows. This will in turn, ensure that there is no hardcore bias one way or another, and it will give the respect back to journalists if they jump on this opportunity and devote their hours of time at work to a subject compared to an ideological banterer who simply sits down and goes off about something, then goes back to his or her full time job.

Yes, let blogging continue though. The last thing we need is one defining roles for people. If a blogger ever wants to go into the White House and report on a press conference, let him or her do it. There is nothing that states bloggers can not be journalists. But as long as bloggers continue to sit down after school or work and write about what they think or feel – they will remain blogs and editorials at best. Yes, perhaps a biased few will claim large readership – but like a game of chess, if you have a strength it means nothing if your weaknesses are in danger of being exploited to a stronger degree. Perhaps bloggers will become personalities online at best – no different than a columnist, which the paper already has many of. A paper has a job much bigger than that.

Yes, I speak of newspapers because I believe they in particular need to take control. They are in the biggest danger of extinction due to low readership and outdated ways of transferring information; however, they are also in the best position to save the journalism world as they have the most freedom and are not directly tied to modern disseminations of information like 24 hour news over cable television for example.

Enter the modern times. I think this technology explosion has temporarily put everyone in an awestruck position – much the same way a child must see the entire world if suddenly they could look from above and instantly hear everyone’s viewpoints at once. We as a society are faced with this dilemma and it is reflected in everything we do – even our art (usually the highest form of culture there is). The time has passed for us to continue dissection of what has happened as we will not be able to go back. The time now is for a progression forward no matter what, and I think this progression starts with the leapfrogging of our most outdated ideas into the forward position to lead the way. After all, what Thomas Jefferson would have chosen over government was the paper press of his day. The papers therefore have the power to change things since they started it all, and papers must do this changing again through adaptations of modernity and strong adherence to professional standards over money issues. A paper should never have any kind of ties to big business. This kind of thinking will help keep the water in the journalism world a little less dirty than that around it. Is it really possible to ever get purity?

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