Newsrooms must get active to survive the economic meltdown

by Robert Niles, Online Journalism Review

The past few weeks have seen the newspaper industry accelerate toward a previously unthinkable collapse. The Tribune Company (one of my former employers) filed for bankruptcy. E.W. Scripps put the Rocky Mountain News (another one of my former employers) up for sale, and might close the 150-year-old Denver paper should no buyer be found within the month. The Wall Street Journal reported that Detroit's two newspapers would stop home delivery on certain weekdays. (Their websites would update seven days a week.) Rumors continue to swirl that the Miami Herald is next up on the block.

The financial trouble throughout the industry is leading many to consider a future without newspapers. Or, at least, without newspapers as we now know them. LA Observed's T.J. Sullivan asked: "Ever wonder what the world would have been like if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hadn't uncovered Watergate? I fear we'll learn the answer in the next couple decades."

With all due respect to T.J., I fear that we already know the answer. Because we've been living in that world for the past 10 years already, a time when traditional journalists failed to uncover emerging scandals and to warn the public about abuses of power at the highest levels of government and industry.

Allow me to suggest that the U.S. news industry's collective failure to accurately portray the world over the past decade has done as much, if not more, to drive readers to the Internet than any inherent attractiveness of this new medium. If existing news businesses wish to have any hope of surviving the current downturn, in any medium, they cannot continue to perform as they have over the past decade.

Consider just a partial list of stories that the news industry, from newspapers to cable and network news, blew over the past 10 years.

- Ignoring the dismantling of Depression-era banking regulations in the late 1990s, which helped set the stage for the current economic collapse.
- Ignoring the rise of Al Qaeda during the same period, while many commentators derided what President Clinton did do to combat the terrorist organization as a "Wag the Dog" attempt to distract the country from his impeachment.
- Treating the impeachment - which boiled down to a dispute over the definition of sex - as a legitimate Constitutional crisis.
- Unskeptically reporting with the Bush administration's bogus case for war in Iraq, despite substantial evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
- Not challenging administration attempts to link Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq with Al Qaeda, despite substantial evidence that they, in fact, hated each other.
- Unskeptically covering the hyperinflation in home prices, ignoring the financial industry's complete abandonment of lending standards (to prime and subprime borrowers alike, I must add), which made triple-digit-percentage real estate price increases possible.
- Ignoring repeated violations of the U.S. Constitution and domestic international law by the Bush administration, including illegal wiretapping, torture, the abandonment of habeus corpus and the use of Presidential "signing statements" that allowed the President to ignore Congressional action.

It didn't need to be this way.

People who read the Los Angeles Times knew about the threat of Al Qaeda before 9/11. People who read The New Yorker, Knight-Ridder newspapers, Bob Scheer, the BBC and the Guardian knew that the evidence showed there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. People who read Paul Krugman and Dan Gillmor knew that rising housing prices were an unsustainable bubble, which would one day burst. People who read Charlie Savage in the Boston Globe knew that President Bush was ignoring the U.S. Congress, in clear violation of the Constitution.

But those examples of outstanding reporting were just that... outstanding. They never permeated the national consciousness they way they should have in the early years of this decade because too many other news reports played up contrary, obfuscating points of view.

The desires for fairness, balance and objectivity are worthy goals in newswriting. But not when they lead to news reports where truth is "balanced" with lies, facts "balanced" with spin and well-informed skepticism "balanced" with mindless cheerleading.

The news industry, made lazy by fat profit margins and near-monopolies in most local markets, grew passive over the past generation. "Balanced" and "objective" news reporting devolved into collecting quotes from the right and quotes from the left, leaving readers to decide who's telling the truth. Even in cases such as those I referenced above, when reporters did uncover the truth, news organizations passively left it to others to act upon that.

Such reticence may have been appropriate when a newspaper provided the only forum for civic discussion. The paper itself needed to step back, and allow other voices in the community to have their say, rather than dominate the discussion with a single point of view.

But no newspaper is a monopoly anymore. They all are now just voices among many others in broader information market, grown by the Web. In this new information market, news organization must stop acting like a monopoly and instead adopt and amplify a more powerful editorial voice.

Without one, a news organization cannot stand out. It can't inspire the public with leadership that it does not provide. Nor can it protect the public with clear direction that it refuses to offer. What's the point of reading then? None. So angry, frustrated readers have turned to other news voices. Bored, indifferent readers have turned to other sources of engagement.

The market has turned, and the current way of doing business won't keep many of us in business much longer. But that doesn't mean news organizations must abandon journalistic principles. They simply need to refocus on principles we should have been aspiring to all along -- such as accuracy, truth and justice.

Our reports must be factually accurate. Those facts must point to a larger, enduring truth. And, most importantly, we must accept the responsibility to demand action upon that truth, in the pursuit of justice.

In short, the news industry must become far more active, learning from online colleagues like Josh Marshall and Markos Moulitsas, who are not afraid to make the connection between news reporting and civic activism.

So when a writer likes the L.A. Times' George Skelton makes the case that California's requirement that two-thirds of its Legislature vote to pass a budget is the culprit killing the state's finances, don't just leave his reporting at that. Or wait around for someone else to do something about it. The Times should take the leadership in agitating to get rid of that requirement. Start a Facebook group: "One Million Californians for Majority Rule" or something like that. Assign a reporter to cover Skelton's work and the online response. Create an echo chamber for this point of view; get the public riled up.

That's what makes a publication vital. That's what draws public attention. That's what engages readers and builds circulation.

But it all must flow from solid reporting. That is what will distinguish valuable news organizations of today and tomorrow from hacks and propaganda outlets like Fox News, which base their activism upon ideology, not evidence.

A more activist approach toward the news would set a much-needed example for the folks in the management suite, as well. Vital newsrooms will need more active management, leaders who can foresee and adjust to changes in the market.

Don't take my words today as a suggestion. Or as a prediction how things might turn out to be. This is the future of the news industry. Let there be no doubt. Activist news organizations, ones that engage, inspire and mobilize their readership, will be the ones that survive this downturn. Passive newsrooms will die. Prepare for this future, or prepare for your exit from this industry.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey