Arguing journalism with the pros

From The Atlantic:

In a poll of prominent members of the national news media, nearly two-thirds say the Internet is hurting journalism more than it is helping. The poll, conducted by The Atlantic and National Journal, asked 43 media insiders whether, on balance, journalism has been helped more or hurt more by the rise of news consumption online. Sixty-five percent said journalism has been hurt more, while 34 percent said it has been helped more.

Go read the article to get a flavor of quotes from these “prominent members of the national news media.” The comments are in line with the growing noise from professional media circles that journalism is somehow threatened in today’s day and age. To be sure, things are different and will continue to be different, but it is a HUGE leap to translate that into a threat to journalism. The threat is to their version of journalism, not the practice itself.

The latest theme from this crowd is that investigative journalism will be lost forever without the kind of funding that comes from large news organizations like newspapers. This is demagoguery and lacks real evidence.

On Stephen Colbert’s show this week, Phil Bronstein, Editor-at-Large of the San Francisco Chronicle, used the Boston Globe’s coverage of sexual predators in the Catholic Church as an illustration of what will be lost if newspapers go under. Here’s the whole clip, if you care to watch it.

Bronstein isn’t the first to use the Boston Catholic Diocese story as an illustration of what will be lost when contemporary newspaper journalism goes under, and the choice of this story isn’t accidental. It’s one that really tugged at the heartstrings of people, so its use as an example is demagoguery in the form of an emotional appeal.

But this idea is loaded with assumptions that simply must be challenged, if we are to rightly examine what’s taking place in the world of journalism. The first assumption is that a story like this would never come to light without a professional news organization spending $1 million. Is this an absolute truth in today’s increasingly networked, everybody’s-a-publisher world? Sources of stories have many other options today than they did just ten years ago, so anonymously going to the newspaper isn’t the “only way.” And if that’s the case, then the issue — Catholic priests committing unspeakable acts with young people — doesn’t rest with the power of the professional press, and it is self-serving to use such an illustration to make the case that consumers need to pay for “good” journalism.

Whistleblowers are themselves media companies today, and we should be spending a whole lot more time discussing protections for such people than sustaining what used to be the only route they had. This is why cases such as Jeff Pataky’s in Phoenix are so important to the future of journalism, much more so than protecting the jobs of people who believe they are a special class of citizen.

Another assumption is that the powerful are afraid of big time news organizations, and that this clout, this influence, opens doors that others may not open. While this certainly may have been true at one time, it simply isn’t today, because elite media organizations have become a part of the power structures they cover. There’s no clearer illustration of this than the role of the press in the collapse of our economy. The press has become a part of the power structure — the shadow government of our culture — and it can no longer claim to represent the public interest. Don’t believe me? Ask the public.

So it’s this high-level place in the culture that’s really at stake for the professional press, and that is slipping away in our increasingly postmodern, post-colonial world. I mean, really; is there any more colonial-minded institution than professional journalism? I think not.

And so the First Amendment, a section of which was written to protect people with a printing press, now extends to anybody with an internet connection, including — but not limited to — professional journalists. Rather than circling the wagons of self-preservation, professional journalists should have been the first to join and eventually lead the personal media revolution.

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