What Are Journalists For?

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Jan. 4 2000 11:40 AM

What Are Journalists For?

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Dear Jim,

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"American Journalism in Crisis." It sounds like the title to any number of Pew Charitable Trust seminars, doesn't it? But I don't really buy it. To these weary eyes, American journalism has never been smarter and more accurate than it is today. Not perfect, mind you, or tweezer-headed nitpicking press critics like you and me would have nothing to carp about. But I'll put today's newspapers up against the newspapers of any era you can name.

And never in the history of American journalism has the media been more scrutinized. Just look at the list of media critics listed in the right gutter of the MediaGossip.com Web site! Or at the Draconian investigations of the press conducted by Special Counsel Steve Brill. There's hardly a conflict of interest or press indiscretion that goes unexamined these days.

While it's true that newspaper audiences are shrinking, that decline has nothing to do with the imagined crisis that Rosen warns about in What Are Journalists For? The newspaper audience and the number of daily newspapers have been steadily shrinking since the advent of radio in the 1920s, and every time a new technology rolls into the mix--TV, cable, the VCR, satellite, video games, the Internet--the audience contracts a wee bit more. A lot of the newspapers that folded were rotten and deserved to die, a sentiment that many left-wing press critics will endorse. And while I can cite no academic study, I'd wager that today's average citizen who looks at the Sunday newspaper or a newsmagazine, listens to all-news radio stations during his commute, and catches a little TV news and talk radio at home is better informed than his counterpart from any era of Rosen's choosing. If a newspaper isn't thriving these days, it might have to do with the fact that it isn't paying attention to the way people live.

At the same time, I believe that the appetite for serious journalism has grown. The best marker of this trend is the popularity of national daily newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and TV shows such as 60 Minutes and Nightline. Even the post-Neuharth USA Today shines brighter than most papers from earlier eras. (USA Today's dirty little secret is that it invented Web journalism 20 years ago: Succinct stories; dazzling graphics; nice weather map; up-to-date ball scores; gossip; breaking news; regional info dumps; user friendly interface--i.e., a newspaper that is in touch with the way people live now.)

To your point that campaign 2000 coverage is poor, focusing on trivial matters--let's not automatically blame journalists. Take, for example, the two Democrats running for president, whose political differences can be measured with a micromicrometer. How would you have reporters cover that contest any differently than they are now?

Let me toss one more idea on the fire as I walk out the door: The notion that journalists have "lost touch with their communities" is utter bunk. It's been at least a generation since the majority of the newspaper audience hailed from the lunch-pail and straphanger crowd. Today's readers, like today's journalists, are better-educated and more skeptical about institutions than were their mothers, fathers, and grandparents. And one of the institutions that they're exceedingly skeptical about--bless their hearts--is the press. This is journalism's golden age.

Hey, seeing as we both punched our tickets at alternative weeklies, you at the Village Voice and me at Washington City Paper and SF Weekly, maybe we should talk about what daily newspapers could learn from the alties. Many of the public journalism innovations that Rosen wants newspapers to experiment with--commitment to the community, initiating "dialogues" with the citizenry, and abandoning objectivity--are practiced routinely at 100 papers in the nation's 50 top markets. (Readers can find a list of them at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Web site.)

Regards,
Jack

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This week, a discussion of Jay Rosen's
What Are Journalists For? (click here to buy it). James Ledbetter is the New York bureau chief of theIndustry Standard. Jack Shafer is the deputy editor of Slate.