Wednesday, April 11, 2012

John Warren: The Problems of Journalism Today

North Country Public Radio‘s Ellen Rocco recently posted a discussion item on their station’s blog pointing to a story by David Sirota that “makes the case that we are on the verge of having journalism-free news and media industries.” Sirota writes that “the real crisis presented by journalism-free news media is the now-imminent potential for a total information vacuum devoid of any authentic journalism outlet. If that happens, we will be deprived of an ability to make informed, preemptive decisions about our world.” To be fair, he lays much of the blame on the corporate news media.

Regular readers probably already know I’m a believer in the idea that journalists are mostly people who get between what actually happened or what someone actually said, and the person who wasn’t there to see or hear it. One problem is reporters pretend to be unbiased observers, which anyone who has studied psychology, sociology, anthropology or history knows is nonsense.

For example, if a major research university releases a report, say on the population of Hamilton County. Where do you go to learn about their findings? Do you find a journalist’s interpretation of the findings, or do you consult the actual study itself.

Journalists would like us all to read their interpretation, but any serious person (including journalists) looks at the study itself and draws their own conclusions.

And therein lies the problem with journalism today. It’s too easy to find the information directly from the source. Like it or not (and people who are paid to be the middle men really don’t want us to like it), we don’t need journalists as much as we did.

As Mark Wilson recently noted in a comment here, “A whole spectrum of routine information from both public and private sources is now available immediately and for free (without the services of an intermediary)…”.

Don’t get me wrong, journalism is not going away, there will always be room for journalists to be places and see things we can’t, or to report on things which are not readily available in the original. But even those roles are being reduced by the ubiquity of smartphones, Twitter and Facebook. Those news distribution systems are not perfect, but given the multiplicity of the sources, their extraordinary reach and increasing importance in the marketplace of ideas, they often outpace traditional journalism. This kind of direct journalism is devoid of the top-down approach of today’s corporate media.

Is this a good thing? Well, people in places like Egypt, Syria, Russia, and Iran which are burdened with lousy journalism think it is. Shouldn’t it be good for America too, where a long history of corrupt journalistic practices haven’t disappeared overnight?

Ellen Rocco, in another comment, hints at some of the causes in the decline of corporate journalism: “…failure to respond to a changing media environment, greed, insidious disregard for the mission of journalism, and so forth. But, I think each of us must take some responsibility: so many people expect to receive news and information for free, while others expect their news to be delivered as bits of entertainment.”

This dovetails with what has become a constant drumbeat from journalists that their vocation is under threat, their audience is at fault, and we’ll be dumber for it. It reminds me of the debate over Wikipedia. Since the online encyclopedia was founded in 2001 it has faced a barrage of criticism from the keepers and distributors of our collective knowledge, not unlike that faced by new media from the keepers and distributors of our journalism.

Wikipedia‘s volunteers, mostly experts in their fields and vetted by a community process, have assembled an encyclopedia vastly superior to the industry standard Encyclopedia Britannica.

Here’s how William Cronon, President of the American Historical Association recently described his experience with Wikipedia:

“Like most scholars, I was skeptical about Wikipedia when Jimmy Wales first launched the site back in 2001. The notion that unvetted volunteers cooperatively contributing to an online encyclopedia might produce a reference work of any real value seemed at best dubious—and, more likely, laughably absurd. Surely it would be riddled with errors. Surely its coverage would be ridiculously patchy. Surely it would lack the breadth, depth, and nuance of more traditional reference works like the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica.

“My initial skepticism is now proof of how little I understood what Jimmy Wales grasped far better than I. Wikipedia exploded from an initial 20,000 articles in 18 languages during its first year to more than 19 million articles in 270 languages (3.8 million of them in English alone) written or edited by 82,000 active contributors. Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don’t believe there’s much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.”

Cronon goes on to argue that academics need to “ponder the ongoing role of professional authority when traditional disciplines can no longer maintain the kind of intellectual monopolies that [they] once took for granted.”

That’s good advice for journalists too. They still have the opportunity to contribute objective reporting on the stories of our time, only now they have to compete in the marketplace of ideas with those they traditionally marginalized through editorial policies or just plain bad reporting.

Although many journalists like to blame their audience, who are the beneficiaries of a wider, deeper, and more readily accessible marketplace of ideas, it’s always been the journalists’ war to win or lose.

Changing the way they do business to provide more balanced and inclusive coverage is one way to win that war. Ad hominem attacks on their audience as the cause of their troubles, is surely one way to lose it.

Photo: The Honolulu Evening Bulletin, gets it wrong on April 15, 1912.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

12 Responses

  1. Ann Melious says:

    As a former journalist and an American education system critic, I note that fewer and fewer individuals are inclined to read direct sources, particularly if they are of a scholarly nature(long, detailed, filled with technical terms). If journalism survives, it may be because its practitioners are practiced at distilling and simplifying. Ultimately, the public may not want to read anything longer than a tweet.

  2. Will Doolittle says:

    Yes, these trends often play out in a counter-intuitive way. So, the more sources that are publicly accessible, the more trained reporters are needed to condense and make sense of all the information. Also, the most important sources — human beings with power or expertise or both — are often reluctant to speak to just anyone who calls or emails. But they often will take the calls of professional journalists, because they know the journalists have standards and can be held accountable, and because talking to one person who will, in turn, reach thousands, is much more efficient than talking to everyone who calls.

  3. scapegoat says:

    With the utter lack of fact-checking and “spinning” of quotes caused by the desire for sensationalist reporting in order to potentially win awards, should I have news to report to more than one person, there are certain sources I refuse to turn to no matter what size and type of audience those sources acquire. The fact that newer technology such as Smartphones and the Internet now provide for more grassroots reporting allows for someone like me to actually choose our sources to convey information to an audience of more than one.

    The more sources that are available now, the more easily it is to point out the ones that no longer partake in honest and thorough reporting.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    If we wish to be honest, the problem began with Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg.
    Religious leaders didn’t appreciate it when the common people got hold of the Bible and started to decide what was meant by what was written.
    It’s all about control or the lack thereof.
    Slightly off subject but related, I was happy to see in the news yesterday and today where the Evil Empire, Apple, and “traditional publishers” are being sued for fixing prices on Ebooks.
    And now with the update FOIL laws, more information is available to the general public when it comes to local government meetings.
    This is all to the good.
    None of this takes away from the need for paid writers/reporters/journalists. It just means in my view that the public has more sources if they care to utilize them.
    We need to remember you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. By that I mean the public bears some responsibility to be informed. This is why education is so important.

  5. Paul says:

    I think that now that folks can see most of the “sources” first hand they see that that many media outlets have an agenda. Even if that agenda is just covering certain stories that their readers or listeners are interested in. Many sources need to be taken with a grain of salt or ignored but you can get most of the information without the middle man in many cases these days. It is mostly a matter of time. I follow media outlets since I just don’t have time to get all the info myself.

  6. Brian says:

    There are two major mistakes that mainstream media journalists make in assessing the current state of the profession.

    The first is, as John’s post mentioned in passing, is blaming the audience. Often, the knee jerk reaction of professional journalists is to sniff “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

    This may be true but it’s a pretty crappy persuasion technique.

    The other major mistake is, well, a different version of the same thing. They often attribute the decline in newspaper sales to people wanting opinion or entertainment, rather than objective news. Again with blaming the audience, this time by basically treating them as stupid.

    There is certainly a not-insignificant percentage of the population that wants those things, but many intelligent, informed people are abandoning newspapers and (American) TV news precisely because they do such a crappy job of keeping us informed.

    The increasing influence of blogs is evidenced by how many professional journalists read and comment here on the Almanack… or steal outright from my own.

  7. Brian says:

    I’ve said before that the fundamental problem with smaller local newspapers is that they’re a mile wide and an inch deep. No one reads the Post-Star or the Saratogian for national or global news coverage (or if they do, they will be badly underinformed); they go to the BBC or or something like that.

    Local newspapers need to refocus on their niche. Stop wasting money on the wires and their junk that’s usually edited into meaninglessness anyways. And it’s the same stuff you can get in 1000 other places for free, so why pay a buck to get it in your local daily?

    Take that money and invest it all into good local journalism, the one thing you can’t, at present, get in a million other places.

    That’s the void local newspapers can fill, where they have the potential to really serve the public. There really is no other point to their existence in the current media landscape except for this.

    Yes, I know the older demographic has its habits but this is the direction local newspapers must go in to retain any relevance they have left.

    Instead, papers like the Post-Star are doing the opposite: laying off local journalists (producers of original, highly targeted content) and keeping the generic wire crap. A strategic mistake of epic proportions.

  8. Will Doolittle says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a print journalist blame the decline of newspapers on the obtuseness of readers or their craving for the trivial, and I’ve had many conversations on that subject. Newspapers offer lots of opinion and entertainment, and always have. In my experience, print journalists most often blame the decline of newspapers on the changing technology and the free-content model of the Internet. It’s as obvious to us as it is to everyone else that the Internet has dealt newspapers a staggering blow, especially since most newspapers chose to give away their content on websites. Many are moving away from that now, and again, journalists have been talking for years about how it’s impossible to survive when you start giving away the product you used to sell. Besides that, newspapers have also been slow and timid in protecting their copyrighted work, and it has been taken and used time and time again on the web, allowing some sites to thrive through thievery to the point where they can now afford to generate their own content. I think the “newspapers blame their readers” idea was dreamed up by folks with an investment in the web competing with, and even beating, traditional media, people like yourself.

  9. Brian says:

    Will, I know what it’s like to have stuff stolen. Except it wasn’t bloggers who did so, it was newspapers. (See:

    Brian Mann, whose blog I know you read, often offers the “you’ll miss professional journalists when they’re gone” line (which, as I said, may be true but it sounds snotty and doesn’t help the cause).

    As for the second complaint I mentioned, if you think it’s fabricated, trying listening to WAMC’s Media Project. They are but one of many media outlets who blame the “dumbing down” of the audience for newspapers’ struggles.

  10. Will Doolittle says:

    Yeah, I find the media project unbearable. I can’t hear what they’re saying over the noise of all the backslapping.

  11. Brian says:

    Here’s an example of the death spiral. The Sunday Post-Star recently phased out its opinion section and folded (a much reduced version of it) into the front section. It also seemed to be missing the coupons that are normally in the Sunday paper. Last year, I believe, they basically got rid of all non-classified content in the D section of the daily edition except for the cartoons on Mondays and Tuesdays. Recently, this appears to have expanded to Wednesdays. This is supposed to encourage MORE people to spend a dollar of their hard earned money for the ever diminishing content?

    Shedding journalists and content… and they wonder why its also shedding readers? (Hint: it’s not the website)

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