‘Glory days’ of journalism? No, yes, no and yes.
So, why is Matthew Yglesias of Slate smiling? More on that in a moment. But first, here’s a sampling of what Pew had to say:
Signs of “shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report,” said the non-profit foundation in a must-read study that noted newsroom staffing at newspapers has fallen by 30% in the last decade, that 40% of the content on local television newscasts is devoted to sports, weather and traffic instead of real journalism, that coverage of live events on cable news channels is down by 30% and that the staff at Time, the last-standing print newsweekly, was cut by 5% as its owner prepares to cleave it and the rest of the publishing group from the more prosperous entertainment businesses of the parent company.
Riffing off Pew’s gloomy survey, Matthew Yglesias of Slate proclaimed these to be the “glory days of American journalism,” adding: “American news media has [sic] never been in better shape. That’s just common sense. Almost anything you’d want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips.”
Yglesias is at once absolutely right and absolutely wrong. Here’s why:
Noting the abundance of information produced about the Cyprus banking crisis, Yglesias cites the ready availability of an analysis by Paul Krugman, the Princeton economics professor, Nobel Laureate and New York Times op-ed columnist. This is the same Paul Krugman, by the way, whose personal bankruptcy in recent weeks was widely reported (Google lists more than 1 million references) all over the web. A personal bankruptcy, that, um, never happened.
The false and defamatory story about Krugman, to whom I apologize for bringing it up again, is an excellent example of why it is a mistake to confuse, as Yglesias does, the quantity of infotainment available in the digital media with the quality of the journalism that goes into producing it.
Real journalists independently report and verify facts and then attempt to produce balanced stories that give the reader or viewer something approaching a full and fair accounting of what they have learned. These practices have been subjected to a considerable amount of shortcutting in the digital age, where even trained professionals have been known to tweet first and ask questions later.
The abundance of bloopers in both mainstream and citizen reporting on the Newtown tragedy attests to this. And don't forget the embarrassingly erroneous CNN and Fox News bulletins on the Obamacare ruling, as detailed by the brilliant (but uncredentialed to cover the Supreme Court) SCOTUS Blog.
This is not to say that the open-sourcing of the news is all tsoris. Were it not for a dude with an iPhone and a Twitter account, we would not have the iconic picture of US Air flight 1549 floating on the Hudson. Were it not for a bartender with a video camera, we would not have known about the 47% remark that may well have cost Mitt Romney the election. Were it not for the social and mobile media, we most likely would not have had the Arab spring.
While we are blessed (or cursed) with at-your-fingertip access to more information from more sources than ever, the ability of anyone, anywhere to be a publisher means that we are in a free-fire zone of information, where the burden is on the consumer to figure not only what she needs to know but also whether she can believe it. Who produced it? What is the motivation of the author? How well was it reported? Is it true? Is there another side of the story?
Beyond worrying about the provenance and veracity of the “news” we know about, I worry even more about the things we don’t know. With newspapers, news magazines and many broadcasters relentlessly retrenching as audiences and advertising shrivel, the once-primary producers of news are cutting back on the journalists who used to unearth untold stories in City Halls, Statehouses and foreign lands. How much malfeasance, how much misery, how much abuse, how many scandals and how many other compelling matters of public interest are we missing? There is no way of knowing. And we never will.
So, are these indeed the “glory” days of journalism?
No, if you worry about the reliability of what you are reading and the important stories you are not being told.
Yes, if you relish abundance and choice in the information you consume, as well as the frictionless freedom to publish anything that comes to mind, be it truthful, trivial or someplace in between.
No, if you are a legacy media company hoping to be as powerful and profitable in the future as you were in the past.
Yes, if you are an upstart journalist with the grit and grist to generate a proper income by building a steady following for your work in the new, and decidedly messy, order of things.