Jon Anne Willow
Rethinking journalism

It’s time to change the conversation

By - Mar 19th, 2009 12:59 pm

This column was originally published in March 2009. Today (October 28, 2009) I participated in a panel for a Milwaukee Public Television program called 4th Street Forums. The topic was “Newspapers in Decline: A Threat to Democracy and Community?”

And this was the program description: The fourth estate is on its knees. Investigations, exposures, & all the hometown news seem in jeopardy. Can democracy survive without a vibrant local press?

Holy cow.

Joining me on the panel were Louis Fortis, publisher of Shepherd Express; Mikel Holt, associate publisher of Milwaukee Community Journal; and Ricardo Pimentel, VP and editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Think about that for a second. Three mature-career print journalists and me, a mid-career non-medium-specific journalist.

So how do you imagine it went? You can watch the program Friday evening at 10 or Sunday morning at 9 on channel 10 or anytime after that on MPTV’s website.

And if you’re interested in my two cents, I’ll say I was surprised. Of course I expected these gentlemen to defend print – does an auto worker bash the union? But I was disappointed to hear all of them so firmly entrenched in the “Print = Journalism” equation. Mr. Fortis bashed the web by asserting that few people visit websites… they prefer print and the statistics prove that. He also said that TV news gets all their information from newspapers and just adds pictures and graphics to put it on air. Mr. Holt asserted that if the Community Journal hadn’t pushed so hard for School Choice that it wouldn’t have happened, “changing education forever.” He’s right about the last part, I’m sure. Especially in Milwaukee. Only Mr. Pimentel acknowledged the importance of the web, at least somewhat, by pointing out that it was a perfect place to augment the newspaper’s content and offer the immediacy readers desired.

All three balked at the idea of government funding to seed a new model for news production and distribution (because if an advertiser tries to exert undue influence you can go find another one, but there’s only one government. Just ask NPR and the BBC… oh wait, that last was my own addition), and wished for a world where advertisers were willing to pay good money for online ads and young people understood the importance of fact-checking – something all three used to differentiate themselves from the credibility-lacking internet. Unfortunately, newspapers screwed the pooch on online revenue years ago, ignoring the web’s value to readers and succumbing to the downward pressure on internet advertising prices by aggregation-based agencies like Double Click. As for fact-checking, that’s a legitimate concern. Because really, who has time for that? I’m kidding!

But that’s another story. This story is about how I left the forum all fired up to write a column on my experience. But, sitting at my computer, I realized I already wrote it. In fact, I wrote it twice. So the first one is below. The second is “Rethinking journalism: let’s get small.”

Let’s keep talking. This is important.


Is it startomb-webting to feel like one of those years where we all should just stay in bed? Every morning my clock radio wakes me to the strains of NPR and a plethora of disastrous news stories on every front of existence. Scanning the headlines over coffee doesn’t make me feel any better, and there are days when I am ready to hide under the covers until 2010 or so before I even make it to my car.

Especially troubling to me is the constant clang of the “Journalism is dead” bell. Journalism is not dead, if for no other reason than it must not be allowed to fail.

To be clear: these are transformational times, and when the dust settles (if it ever does), the journalistic landscape will be vastly different than the one most of us grew up with. Newspapers, the primary bastions of local, daily news coverage, have made innumerable errors in judgment in the last ten years. They screwed up with their unbelievably arrogant belief in their own infallibility and by embracing an ecosystem where online ads were viewed as “value-add” (a.k.a., “free with purchase of print”). And we screwed up, too, by insisting on having everything on the web for free and forcing the elimination of their revenue streams one by one.

Gone forever are the five tributaries of classified sales, display advertising, newsstand sales, subscriptions, specialty sections and annual publications that used to feed the daily newspaper river. All now depends on display ads in print and on the web, which, even in a healthier economy, would not be enough to keep a well-established news organization financially healthy over time. It doesn’t help that many newspaper ad reps still don’t believe in their hearts that online advertising has inherent value.

So let’s look at the situation pragmatically. Many in the blogosphere assert that they can do journalism better, but most issues-focused blog posts refer to news items published by daily newspapers and news networks. If someone knows of a terrific investigative journalism blog network that serves Milwaukee, please let me know – I’d love to subscribe to their RSS feed. That said, though with some regret for the loss it implies, there is a valuable place in the blogosphere to perhaps take over general coverage of opinion, lifestyle, humor, parenting and more.

Which brings us back to News (with a capital N). It’s a term that’s too often confused with journalism. But journalism is larger, hard news being one piece of it – the piece most worth saving.

The Random House Dictionary defines journalism this way: the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business. And it’s the second part of that definition that finds truth in the proclamation of the death of journalism. The current business model of news organizations is most definitely finished, and there is great sadness in that, though little surprise. The idea of your daily newspaper as a major local employer creating hundreds of family-supporting jobs, both blue- and white-collar, is destined to become a memory very soon. And it’s really too late to turn the tide, if it could ever have been turned.

What needs to be preserved is the first part – the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news – and with emphasis on news gathering as an occupation, not an avocation. For this, depending on community journalists (bloggers) is not an option, for many reasons. The healthy existence of some sort of organizational setting where professional reporters can perform the critical task of providing trustworthy, knowledgeable and consistent coverage of daily news and have the freedom to attempt to right wrongs and expose corruption must not die. Our very lives may depend on it.

Think I’m exaggerating? All you need to remember is one product recall that affected you, the dangers brought to light by some intrepid reporter. My best friend still suffers from a heart condition brought on by Fen-Phen. She may be alive today because of a 2005 report in American Lawyermagazine that created a groundswell and ultimately led to a product recall and free medical treatment for the affected. And do we still care about corruption? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the County pension scandal, leading to a massive, if somewhat dubious, reform of the system that’s still ongoing.

[Note: Clearly I got this wrong. Bruce Murphy broke the pension story for Milwaukee World, then went more in-depth in Milwaukee Magazine. Shortly thereafter, he was offered and accepted a position at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.–March 21]

Those are just two examples and I bet anyone reading this can think of many more. But what’s to be done? We’ve all been fixed in the headlights of the oncoming truck when what’s needed is to re-engineer the highway.

I don’t have the answers any more than you do, but I think I’m not alone in my feelings. In the coming weeks I’ll be offering up some suggestions of my own, and hope it spurs some dialog. Please join in at any time, by commenting or contacting me through the website. We may or may not ultimately help to avert this impending crisis, but maybe we can shift the conversation. And that’s a start.

0 thoughts on “Rethinking journalism: It’s time to change the conversation”

  1. Anonymous says:

    what bugs me in online publishing, is the air of “vulgarity” in many of the blogs and “lifestyle” features. Can’t young writers express themselves with out shits, fucks, damns, etc? Note: Ted Bobrow doesn’t sink to this level, and because his language is clear and fuck-free, I take what he has to say….seriously.

    To my mind vulgarity (lazy writing disguised as freedom of speech)permeates everything around it and casts a bad odor on everything that rubs against it.

    Where do I go for in-depth reporting? The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harpers. McNeil Lehrer. I trust no one these days, and everything I read, I read with a cynical eye.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Stella. My mom thanks you too.

    Jon Anne touches on a subject near and dear to my heart.

    Newspapers and other traditional media are in a whole lot of hurt now for lots of reasons. But the problem isn’t the declining value of their product.

    Eyeballs are going to media sites in greater and greater numbers. The business model needs to catch up with the changing world we live in.

    Don’t worry (unless you make a living as a journalist), it’ll happen. Town criers were screwed when Gutenberg came along and the internet is revolutionizing communications more than anything since the printing press.

    Many publishers (present company excluded, of course) actually got fat and lazy after decades of double digit profit margins as they built near monopolies based on revenue from display and classified ads.

    Let’s give credit to the folks at Third Coast who are wrestling with these issues. Their decision to go “all digital” reflects a clear-eyed understanding of where things are headed.

    The Seattle Post Intelligencer just reached a similar conclusion though everyone seems to be grasping at figuring all of this out.

    Hopefully, someone will see a need for investigative reporting in Milwaukee, and will develop a business model to support it.

    Check out this interesting examination of the past and future of newspapers…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oh and a couple more things.

    First, the main difference between “blogging” and “journalism” is “editing.” The strength of traditional journalism is (yes, it still exists) that quality journalism requires good editing and high standards.

    All too often blogging is the equivalent of Wikepedia. If someone says something it must be true. Umm, I don’t think so.

    Lastly, correct me if I’m wrong but Bruce Murphy deserves credit for breaking the Milwaukee pension scandal when he was writing for The Journal Sentinel, I believe, was notoriously late to the story.

    And you could look it up.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Way to go Jon Anne. It is important to bring this discussion out into the public discourse. For it is we the people who will soon find ourselves no different than our caricatures of comrades in cold war russia. What needs to be recognized here is not “is journalism dead?” but rather has freedom of speech been restructured and restricted? I fear the worst is right around the corner, as printed “news” dies and everyone “does digital” we all seem quite assured that airwaves are as real and accessible as newsprint. But newsprint does not require a computer, an internet connection and an account login to read the information. Newspapers can be read with little more than a candle and seventh grade education.

    Part of the transformational landscape being forged by the destruction of news as we know it – is access, localization and community. During the last seven years we’ve seen tremendous consolidation of media empires. Whether radio, television or print, corporations and private equity firms have quietly been buying up our media landscape and severing thousands of links to communities, government, local whistle-blowers, great journalists and newsmakers.

    All this while simultaneously creating the largest and most available media spectacular known to mankind. As the Springsteen song says, 57 channels and nothing on. Actually, its worse than that, now we’ve got 1000 channels with the same thing on! We’ve got fewer than 10 media conglomerates owning all the major newspapers, television, entertainment and radio. They’ve consolidated into most of the local and regional markets as well. What this means is less reporters actually reporting, less transparency in business and government, and less useful information for the citizens. What it also means is greater ease in controlling the content that does make it out.

    Last year a train derailed near a small urban town who’s local radio stations were bought up and “upgraded” to nationally syndicated broadcasts. As the highly toxic fumes swept over the town, many turned to the radio for news of the eye-burning, gaseous smell making it hard to breathe. As hundreds vomited into their toilets and put wet washcloths on their children’s eyes, the local radio just played song after song with an announcer giving weather and national news.

    This is just the beginning of what will become “newspeak” in the future: non-specific corporate-edited, white noise. I can hear Orwell spinning in his grave right now.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I was able to stomach only a few minutes of the 4th Street Forums show Jon Anne referenced in the beginning of the article, because it was apparent that nobody on the panel of “experts” gets it.
    Newspapers are the watchdogs? and so are the “big 3” news networks on TV. Sure, this is why alternative sources are thriving while both historical forms of media perish. Most of the breaking news is not lead by these archaic mediums, the real heavy lifting is done by concerned citizens. The dinosaur Tom Brokaw may work for my grandparents, but myself and others probably feel he is better displayed in a museum. The idea of a talking head telling me is funny, Will Farrell spoofed this point in his movie “ANCHORMAN”, but just like the character in the movie couldn’t comprehend a female delivering the news, the members on this panel seemed clueless and so bloated with themselves to realize the delivery of news has changed.

    True, there remains a mass of people who are stuck in years of habitual behavior holding a paper in hand or watching the news after dinner or before bed. Also there are a group who are unable to comprehend or effectively use new technology, and it is these people who are the real reason why the big 3 and newspapers still exist.
    It is not an indication of a future of “dumbies” and end of “democracy” because the masses refuse to pay for a service that stinks. There has been and always will be a segment of people who just don’t care about the news, but for the rest a new direction is already underway. Interested and passionate citizens who enjoy thoughts and content of others who are not dictated to by a government or corporation, now can have limitless ability through email, twitter, facebook, blogging, to discuss and challenge themselves and others like never before.
    I’m 30 and most of my peers have expressed disgust on how the “media” has sold out, or responsible journalism has “died”. Jon Anne remarked that the Wall Street Journal was the exception to the equation as far as a business model. I do agree charging for content online is important, but they are also the only source that readers can get that is alternative to what you can read anywhere. If you picked up a paper in Milwaukee, New Orleans, Seattle, etc. and were able to read them side by side, the consolidation of media (colbydog’s comment on earlier post) is obvious. It doesn’t take long and much cynicism if anyone does travel to realize the newspapers and tv stations are same. Somebody in this city cut a paste an AP release and lets not just call it news but we have to declare if its not printed and paid for in the end, that then democracy will end! Who are they fooling?
    And this is the point! People don’t want to pay for the product because it isn’t good. The Wall Street Journal may only be slightly critical of the current administration but they are the only ones offering that. Poll after poll, says Americans are conservative in ideals (not talking rep. or dem) and a very large segment of the population doesn’t value the content or editorial stance of the newspapers or big 3. This group has be alienated forever and those forms didn’t have to care about losing viewers or readers because there wasn’t another option… until now.
    So I’ll take my chances online despite the existence of misinformation, because if it is a topic of interest, you can dive in and do you own fact checking be linked to multiple sources. The internet is the way of the present and hopefully in the future it can keep its content from being perverted and edited and censored the “main stream media” has. I doubt it will, gov’t needs to control spin, corporations want a captive audience, how can you influence the masses if you can’t control the medium.

  6. Anonymous says:

    November 1/09

    “The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition.” (The Story Behind The Story/The Atlantic Monthly/October 2009)

    In 1960, the critic A.J. Liebling, said this about the arrival of the one-newspaper town:

    The worst of it is that each newspaper disappearing below the horizon carries with it, if not a point of view, at least a potential emplacement for one. …itis like a man with not one eye and often the eye is glass.

    Fairly balanced journalism is primarily a thing of the past. It has been replaced by ammunition. Lock and Load;forget fairness. It’s winning that counts. Has journalism become a form of “cage fighting?”

    It’s even more discouraging to learn that young people no longer see the
    difference between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery, and let me say here that disinterested means the reporter has no personal interest in the story, i.e., an agenda, a bias. Or otherwise.

    Only a fool would confuse Limbaugh witha solid journalist. His is a road littered with verbal garbage. Please Lord, bring us more dedicated editors.

    Enter now The Land of New Journalism. There’s still time to right our wrongs, and that doesn’t mean we need dump the Freedom of Speech mantra. I enter this land with no small amount of cynicism.

    And a big amount of hope.

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