There it was, staring at me with remarkable clarity, a headline from Business Insider on the sad state of newspapers pared with a picture from the film “All The President’s Men,” the story of Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post and, of course, Watergate. The irony? Evidence (Gallup) suggests that this event — the elevation of everyday journalists into superstar status — was the bellwether occurrence that began the downward slide of press trust in the U.S. Of course, you won’t hear contemporary journalists speak such heresy. After all, Woodward & Bernstein are the model of what it means to be the successful professional (a.k.a. “real”) journalist of today, and this is why BI used the photo.
The BI article examines new research from LinkedIn on sectors of the economy that are losing jobs.
On a percentage basis, newspapers shed the most jobs, down 28.4% between 2007 and 2011.
The good news: online publishing had job growth of 20.4%. But it didn’t add as many jobs as newspapers lost.
We’ve heard from thousands of insiders and outsiders, experts and armchair quarterbacks on what’s causing this decline, and all tell part of the story: disruptive innovations, Craigslist, the recession, failing to initially charge for content online, and so forth. But most of these are shortsighted, and the Gallup research is the only evidence that points to the origin of the decline in press trust in the country, and it begins shortly after Watergate.
I’ve written much about what I think happened, that journalism subtly shifted from a way from a career in which a single person could make a difference to one of riches and notoriety (see: “I love to be in front of cameras” below). The ability to hobnob with those they covered — and, therefore, gain status simply by rubbing elbows with the famous — became the wish of many of those who passed through the gates of accommodating journalism and communications schools. I witnessed this up close and personal in my own career. Employees who “wanted to be on TV” became the majority, and then there’s the ugly side of market-hopping, the slow shift from parochial news coverage to cosmopolitan news coverage in smaller markets as more and more Woodward & Bernstein wannabes expressed themselves for the sake of their resumes instead of the community they were supposed to be serving. How else do you explain stories of young TV reporters doing things like jumping a fence at a very small market airport to “prove” how easy it would be for a terrorist to do likewise? This kid got himself arrested, but that’s not the point.
Playing hotshot super sleuth in a place like that wasn’t even close to reporting news for the community, and the thing we’ve always failed to see about this is that people — you know, the audience — have been paying attention. It’s crystal clear to them that news people are in it for themselves and serve neither the public nor the profession. Beginning at the university level, an entire industry swung from making a difference to the quest for the big bucks (“quest,” because we never really got there, except for the few, right?), and the hell with what the audience might think.
This is why I wrote last week of the Great Winnowing that has begun, wherein the practice of journalism is having its way with a whole generation of misled practitioners. I have faith that the demand for journalism remains (and will be) strong and that people will earn a decent living at the end a really rough season for most.
Ego is a funny thing. It drives people to great personal risk, which can produce great rewards, but it can also create unrealistic expectations and turn normally sane people into preening peacocks of staggering insanity.
What has been our chief sin since Watergate? We just can’t seem to get over ourselves.