March 22, 2009

The Only Thing To Fear Is Fear Itself

Posted in Media overviews tagged , , , , at 12:08 pm by M L Clark

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a 146-year-old publication, printed its last issue on March 17; moving forward, it will be online-only. The San Francisco Chronicle was similarly threatened last week; it hangs on with the possibility of becoming a non-profit organization, or merging with other regional news outlets.

Though friends send me links about the most striking losses in the print and broadcast journalism fields, the truth is that I’ve been following job losses, mergers, bankruptcies, and budget cuts for three years now. Anyone with any sustained interest in journalism has done the same for at least as long. The first post on this blog, written a year ago, especially notes the lengthy articles written in various publications over the past few years about the future of journalism — though many will say the discussion began in the ’90s, or earlier, and they’re likely right: I just haven’t been in the field that long yet myself.

In any case, it’s not a new debate, and that’s precisely what I feel many people don’t realize when they weigh in. Especially striking is how conversation on this topic is framed around these most prominent losses, such that my friends’ questions become “What are you going to do in journalism [in light of this]” or “What do you think the future of journalism will be [in light of this]?” These are good questions, but troubling ones, because they guide the answers as reactions to these events — when really, the answers at this point should stand incident-independent.

But before I get to these specific answers I should note that those outside the realm of journalism are not the only ones framing their questions and concerns in direct response to these monolithic collapses. Rather, quite a few disgruntled journalism majors and members of the industry are weighing in, too — to tell everyone how they’re “getting out.” In the case of journalism majors, boy, let me tell you: the reaction of many in this regard does nothing to placate my dislike for their programs; rather, these petulant grads make it clear just how many acquire their degrees with an unhealthy dose of entitlement — to jobs, to stability, to automatic repute in the journalism world. The journalism greats of old did not learn journalism in classrooms; they came from other degree programs, or else no university or college education at all, and in either case plucked up enough courage to engage their city publications and start as low-level reporters, working their way up to notoriety.

This lacking drive can be felt in the newsrooms just as much as it can in classes: members of the traditional media corps are also jumping ship to other careers. While the financial imperative is understandable, especially among those with families to support, less so is their blind endorsement of others doing the same. I would, for instance, kill to hear someone say “I don’t have the means to pursue the profession in this changing environment — but I wish all the best to those who stick with it anyway.” But of course, to say something like this, one would have to grasp a basic, underlying tenet of this whole transformation: specifically, that its existence is the one fact we can and should rely upon.

Yes, journalism is changing. Is the human desire for information about the world we live in changing, too? No. Not at all. So there will always be a need for news — and with it, people to acquire, distribute, and analyze this news. As such, our questions as journalists are the same as they’ve ever been:

1) What is the quality of current news reporting?
2) What can we do to improve or maintain this quality of reporting?
3) What areas of our world are under-reported?
4) How can we address these lapses?

Some commentators are so mired in questions one and three — their fears about what is being lost in the midst of this dramatic upheaval — that they can’t progress to questions two and four. Frankly, this is more troubling than the answers to one and three themselves. Yes, the quality of current news reporting is greatly diminished by newsroom and foreign bureau cuts, to say nothing of explicit job losses. Yes, huge lapses in the quality of investigative journalism, both at home and abroad, are already being noted by journalism organizations. All right, we get it.

But as two notable bloggers, Clay Shirky and Steven Berlin Johnson both note in very lengthy, but exceptionally potent essays, the fixation on these problems as signs of The End of Things is narrow-minded and fear-based.

What we exist in is a time of transition, a time in which new vehicles for reporting will rise up to supplant the old. This means that, as the old forms of media are diminished (I hesitate to suggest they will ever fully disappear: I find that doubtful, myself), gaps in coverage, and sponsorship for this coverage, necessarily emerge. Johnson likens this void to the expectant nature of computer magazine readers in the mid to late eighties: the potential for a huge new data stream was there, but as of yet unformed; and though many a reader would eagerly await the next issue of, say, MacWorld, surely none could fathom the modern day equivalent: an excess of Apple news in print and daily online. Shirky emphasizes this point in his own essay: We cannot see the shape of things to come, but in the meantime, the only thing to fear is fear itself.

And so, like the realm of computer information in the eighties, so too is the world of journalism now increasingly an expectant void — with many current lapses noted in response to the first and third questions, and few concrete, tried-and-true answers to these lapses in the second and fourth. And yet the need for answers to these questions persists — as does humanity’s overarching, all-consuming need for more information about the world we live in.

The moment that unrelenting inquisitiveness disappears, then we can talk about the sky falling in Journalism Land. Until then, it’s only our own pride and complacency that needs to be checked: For journalists today the task is not to moor ourselves to any one vehicle for the acquisition, distribution, or analysis of news that matters: rather, it’s to stay adaptable, keep learning, maintain humility, and engage the changing media landscape with an open mind and a loyal heart.

And any who can’t manage this (for reasons other than their need to attend to lives in their care) probably weren’t pursuing journalism for the right reasons in the first place — so to them I say, thank you. Thank you for getting the hell out.

May 11, 2008

The need for more, and better, mainstream media criticism

Posted in Media overviews tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 pm by M L Clark

“You know what the worst part of that is? It’s not that the speeches have gotten better; it’s [that] media criticism isn’t as good as it used to be.”

— Robert Schlesinger, guest author, The Daily Show

Within the last two years, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Adbusters, the Tyee, the New Yorker, and the Walrus have written extensively about the challenges facing contemporary media in its on-going bid at maintaining relevance as both political watch-dog and central arbiter of social discourse. Newsroom cutbacks, expansive media monopolies, weak protectionist policies from the government, social pressures from extremist interest groups, and the advent of New Media (and with it, a rapidly transforming revenue structure) are all aspects of a journalism culture that is presently tasked with re-branding itself without ready access to all the resources such an effort requires.

And indeed, many feel this lack of resources is ultimately to blame for the deficit of effective media criticism at crucial North American turning points in the last fifteen years, but one could just as easily argue — and I would — that a lack of effective media criticism in and of itself marked the industry as “ripe for the picking” by corporations increasingly unfamiliar with journalism’s non-entertainment responsibilities. To elaborate on that reversal, though, I should first deliberate a little on what constitutes “good journalism.”

To that end, consider a recent Globe & Mail article, which notified readers of the paper’s dominance at the 2008 National Newspaper Awards. One online respondent commented: “take it easy globe, you’re faaaaaar from perfect.” But is perfection even a reasonable aim for journalism? When by its very nature news media is tested every single day, with every single news report it issues, it can’t be: stories necessarily develop over time, new facts regularly emerge to supplant the old, and self-correcting mechanisms are an intrinsic part of the process, thereby confirming the necessary incompleteness of any one day’s product, no matter how thoroughly researched or reasonably presented. No, there is no resting on one’s laurels in an organization constantly tasked with proving itself anew, and so the measure of good media has to be based more on its commitment to that process itself. How tireless is it? How well does it resist complacency, revisit entrenched internal biases, question assumptions, and respond to outside criticism? Good journalism is fallible; but good journalism also knows how fallible it is, and strives very hard to account for subsequent lapses. And when good journalists internalize this state of constant questioning, this aversion to complacency, they can fight even the most aggressive of pressures to the contrary.

In 2001, for instance, CanWest Global Communications tried to impose a national editorial in its constituent papers — the same editorial, written at CanWest headquarters, for papers all across Canada. Its inclusion would be mandatory, and while local op-ed pieces would still be accepted, they were not allowed to contradict the opinions expressed in the corporate editorial. In the name of maintaining an open forum for public debate, reporters and editors resisted: they went on a byline strike and raised public awareness — especially when a spate of CanWest firings were tied to similar attempts at curtailing different opinions and approaches to the news (with criticism of the Liberal Party and pro-Palestinian comments proving especially dangerous for CanWest staff).

The CanWest corporation embodies a series of on-going problems for Canadian journalists, but at least where corporate editorials are concerned, journalists can — for the moment — claim victory: CanWest dropped that intended policy the moment public pressure became too much. But here, too, there is no such thing as a “perfect” victory: the freedom of the press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, must be tested and affirmed on a regular and rigorous basis. This is where media criticism comes in — journalism’s answer to the ancient question, “Who will watch the watchers?”

I can’t say for certain that media organizations would have suffered fewer newsroom cutbacks, or that corporate owners wouldn’t have interfered as much with their editorial decisions, if there had been a more entrenched culture of media criticism in the early 1990s. But to have someone keeping tabs on other organizations, and teaching readers to keep tabs too — this, to me, is a crucial part of journalism’s internal, self-correcting mechanisms, and one I hope very much to participate in throughout my life.

It is also one that has flourished, oddly enough, in its own absence. When mainstream publications proved unable to provide this public service, the public — settling very easily, and very prominently, into the age of New Media — began supplying this service on their own. Now, in 2008, we see military blogs about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rivaling information released through standard channels; the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report heading a broad spectrum of “Second Gen” blog aggregate sites (ones which, unlike Digg or Redditt, have an editorial team setting the front page content); and the Talking Points Memo especially empowering citizens by showing how public pressure can, in fact, improve political accountability.

Whether or not journalists within mainstream publications are ready, the realm of discourse has broadened, and readers today are far from their passive cousins of yesteryear. To this end, the role of traditional journalism is still changing — still being “re-branded” — but not in any way that really lies outside of its original precepts. Journalism has always been something taken day-by-day — something that requires regular adaptation, and constant self-correction. And so long as Canadian journalists are willing to avail themselves to the new demands and needs of our population — and especially to acknowledge and make up for the lack of entrenched media criticism within its walls — we’ll never be perfect, but at least we’ll be far more likely never to forget that fact.