Thursday, July 3, 2008

Why Journalism Won't Die--No Matter What You Read on the Internet

This morning I awoke to learn that the "big city" newspaper that gave me some of my finest training and greatest challenges, one of the dearest memories of my career, is slashing a large portion of its staff.  The first response was visceral and acutely personal--with vibrant, vivid recollections  of the rickety old building we worked in, copy boys, manual typewriters (yes, manual typewriters), pneumatic tubes used to send copy from the editors' desk down to the printers, those marvelous magicians who set type manually, and the memories, always green, of hard-driving, over-stressed reporters and editors who cared, who believed in getting it right.

Who believed in journalism, up close, personal, real--the thing that many today would have you believe is a dinosaur, a laughable old creaking monstrosity replaced by the internet. But does copying and pasting others' work, or snarking around, actually replace say, a good investigative reporter with a huge reach in readership, or an excellent, real editor who edits objectively, for actual news value, rather than for personal or political agendas?

There are some who think that journalism is well dead, Banquo's ghost, fluttering about ineffectually. But, as one commentator points out in the discussion accompanying this article--"Newspapers are a vital source of literacy."

Yes, they are. Perhaps at some point, historians in a later era will point to a time when texting became conversation, and when anyone who could manage to type in woefully mis-spelled words and clattering non-grammatical phrases, without either substance or facts, could fancy themselves journalists, movers and shakers, makers of this brave new world.

It's a fad, you see, this poseur belief that real journalism is no longer needed, because (strike a pose, modeled, cyberly, after an Edwardian fop)you see, all the truly au courant simply chat on the internet. If you know what's up at Huff or any of many other websites, then, my dear, you are in among the latest of fashions.

Once upon a time, the fad for beaver hats for men and feathered hats for ladies led to the carnage of animals and birds, literally wiping out species. Is journalism the latest feather to pluck from a dying carcass, to wear proudly in a new age?

I think not. It will, no doubt, be a contrarian view, but long-term, I have this belief that one day, people will look up and discover two things. The first is that there's a huge population out there that doesn't live on the internet and simply doesn't care what en vogue chatty websites have to say.

The second is that when real crisis is at hand, as witnessed in the Iowa floods, nobody does it better than a real, committed, trained newspaper staff. You can fly in sleekly shining TV reporters for the stand-up. You can talk about it on the web.

But the real news comes from the dirty, tired reporter from that area, the one who knows how to interview, how to get the news and present it quickly and in a readable format. The real news comes from photographers who are trained to consistently, day after day, get good shots, and who know how to frame the shots to go with the story. The real news comes from editors, sometimes at odds with the reporters and photographers in the dynamic tension that builds a great newsroom, who carefully edit and select the stories and the photos.

Real journalism isn't yet dead, although there are many who would have you think so. There are business models out there for getting rich quick on the internet, without investing the time and money in building well, a solid journalistic package. And the existing newspapers that transition to the web are often scoffed at by the new gold rush kids.

As Timothy Egan points out in his poignant piece: "But on its best days, a newspaper is a marvel of style and wit, of small-type discoveries and large-type overstatements, a diary of our deeds.

We may still prove Jefferson’s preference wrong: perhaps a nation can function without newspapers. But it would be a confederacy of dunces."

Miss Egan's column at your peril. It should be required reading for classrooms, homes, and boardrooms of the media decision-makers causing newspapers to bleed bright red blood, the lifeblood of real journalism, the kind that helps keep you not only informed, but free.

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