Wednesday, March 20, 2013

‘Glory days’ of journalism? No, yes, no and yes.

In nine years of calibrating the health of the news media in the United States, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism never has painted a bleaker picture of the performance and prospects of the press than it did in the annual report issued on Monday. 

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.  


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one of the major issues with "modern journalism" is figuring out who's a reliable source of information and who isn't. However, I don't think such a thing is possible with our desire to access instant-info.

You pointed this out with the Newtown tragedy -- everyone was in such a rush to print headlines with the story that wrong, unverified information was put out.

The only way to improve "modern journalism" is for the consumers to accept that a solid news story must take time or else it will resort to rumor-reporting.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Today offered an example of what is supposedly our best -- the New York Times editorializing about how the politicians led us into the Iraq war 10 years ago, and how the war was disasterous, leaving the Middle East far worse off and at great cost of American and Iraqi lives.

Funny. The Times never mentioned its own role as cheerleader for the war. Never even hinted at it.

And the Times is now cheerleader for conflict with Iran. Barf.

8:56 PM  
Blogger John Reinan said...

Much of what Yglesias says makes perfect sense -- for news consumers.

Then, in the penultimate graf of a pretty long piece, he tosses in this single sentence:

"For people trying to make a living in journalism, the problems are real enough."

I think that point deserves a little more examination than he gives it.

9:34 AM  
Blogger John Reinan said...

Much of what Yglesias says makes perfect sense -- for news consumers. Then, in the penultimate graf of a pretty long piece, he tosses in a single sentence:

"For people trying to make a living in journalism, the problems are real enough."

I think that point deserves a little more examination than he gives it in his sunny look at the new world of information.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Deborah Bayes said...

Thanks Alan for an insightful post about the need for readers to think about what they're reading, who wrote it and the news source. Our expectations on immediacy as digital news consumers and the demands on journalists working under 24/7 deadlines to produce the news are both good and not-so-good (i.e. tsoris) as you've detailed.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Charlie Beckett said...

Hi Alan,
I don't know if this is a golden age or not but it's a different age.
The difference is this.
In the past if professionals made a mistake or lied, you wouldn't know.
Now if amateurs or professionals lie or make a mistake we have a choice and there is (generally speaking) a self-correcting mechanism that does not rely on regulation, editors, or law.
Charlie Beckett (LSE)

2:28 AM  
Blogger Peter Erikson said...

I think Matthew Yglesias is the only person who actually believes that these are the glory days of journalism. Or, is he just pulling our leg? Tongue in cheek?

Unless he's taking a mind-altering medication we don't know about, he couldn't possibly be serious. His column, in fact, is proof positive that the glory days are long past. It makes little sense (even if it is an opinion piece, which are usually given wide latitude), is poorly documented and seems to sniff imperiously at the fact that so many good journalists have lost their jobs.

We're getting a lot of news on the Cypress banking story -- so what? The Internet is so bloated, and contains so many errors (many of which are purposely, by the way) that trying to find quality news is like locating a needle in the proverbial haystack.

The best "news" on the web? The Onion, hands down. Perhaps Matthew Yglesias has a future there.

Peter Erikson

4:51 PM  
Blogger Randy Bennett said...

This has the potential of being a new golden age of journalism. The increased access to data, multimedia tools, crowdsourcing, instant fact-checking, visual storytelling, etc. have laid the foundation for more compelling content and informed citizens.

I think there are a lot of great stories being investigated and told (every day), but I worry that they are getting lost in the crush of trivial information and distraction. As Eric Schmidt so eloquently said several years ago (and I'm paraphrasing): "The Internet is a cesspool of false information" and predicted a "flight to quality." We'll see.

Meanwhile, the ability for quality journalism organizations to invest in more aggressive and meaningful coverage is a significant challenge. I, for one, hope all of the experimentation results in a sustainable model going forward.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Yglesias is not the only media-watcher who inexplicably believes this to be a golden period in American journalism. There's also Brooke Gladstone of NPR's On the Media.

I suspect part of the confusion arises from a failure to add the variable of geography. For international news, the Web provides more variety (including transalations) than the best newstand in the world. But the closer you get to your own neighborhood, the less the Web has to offer in terms of solid reporting and fact-based commentary. From the metro level down, the loss of quality journalism has been nothing short of breath-taking.

11:43 AM  

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