It is not a news flash to say that the decline in the health of American journalism is currently close to a death spiral. In a wonderfully succinct review of the current state of play for the industry in Frank Rich’s column today, he noted the many challenges that have been faced by the varied mediums throughout the 20th century, right up to the present. It’s well worth a read. But unlike the entertainment media who have had their successes at reviving their fortunes with the introduction of new technologies – and failures, he noted, “with all due respect to show business, it’s only journalism that’s essential to a functioning democracy. And it’s not just because — as we keep being tediously reminded — Thomas Jefferson said so.”
Rich goes on to write:
Yes, journalists have made tons of mistakes and always will. But without their enterprise, to take a few representative recent examples, we would not have known about the wretched conditions for our veterans at Walter Reed, the government’s warrantless wiretapping, the scams at Enron or steroids in baseball.
Such news gathering is not to be confused with opinion writing or bloviating — including that practiced here. Opinions can be stimulating and, for the audiences at Fox News and MSNBC, cathartic. We can spend hours surfing the posts of bloggers we like or despise, some of them gems, even as we might be moved to write our own blogs about local restaurants or the government documents we obsessively study online.
But opinions, however insightful or provocative and whether expressed online or in print or in prime time, are cheap. Reporting the news can be expensive. Some of it — monitoring the local school board, say — can and is being done by voluntary “citizen journalists” with time on their hands, integrity and a Web site.
I guess he would be referring to me, but not sure about the time issue.
He goes on to say that opinion is still no substitute for reporting, such as what is happening in Pakistan, Washington or Wall Street — and our local school board. I noted earlier that there was no reporting on the school finance hearing that recently took place at the capital. Nor was there any local newspaper reporting on our recent school budget decisions for next year. I’ve been told that a short TV piece aired on a 10 o’clock broadcast (update: WKOW, includes video, h/t JW) — hardly a sufficient exercise in enfranchising our community with the knowledge of how one of the largest portions of their tax money is being spent. In fact, at the moment, the Board of Education web site is even down, ironically. The latest lack of coverage by our local media about the budget deliberations, especially print, with it’s ability to dig a little deeper on issues, is a sad development. With newspaper management fixated on moving around reporters to new beats on a regular basis (from a long out-of-date model), just has they have gotten up to speed on a complex subject such as education, is indeed beyond stupid. Just because conflict has been and remains a driver of much American journalism, it does not mean that there isn’t some important education reporting that needs to be done at the moment.
Blogs, such as this one, are a woefully inadequate substitute to good reporting, one in which telephone calls to sources are made, meetings attended and then a report distributed in a medium large enough to reach a mass audience. Count me as another person who is concerned about these latest developments. What is the current thinking of the editors at the WSJ and the Cap Times?