One journalist for media reform: bashed, thrashed and encouraged

by Ryan Blethen, Seattle Times

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — I did not come to this river town to get mugged. But that is what it felt like sitting through the National Conference for Media Reform.

The conference might have felt like an assault against a journalist like me who works at a metropolitan newspaper. I heard about the evils, and incompetence, of the likes of me at almost every turn. Apparently, mainstream journalists are to blame for the war, for not connecting the Bush administration to 9/11, for the plight of the middle class, and whatever other grievances could be identified.

I am glad I sat through the thrashing. Folks are unhappy with the press. I do not blame them. We are living in a divisive time, and the press is partly responsible for our nation's ills and the war.

The conference was put on by Free Press, a national organization that pushes media policy and wants the public to become informed participants in the media debate. I was one of a few mainstream journalists on a panel. For the most part, participants were people from the left with a nasty view of what I do.

I did not leave the conference, which drew 3,500 people, dismayed. I left encouraged about the future of newspapers even though most panels and speakers at the conference freely bashed journalism's mainstreamers.

Why the optimism? The theme I kept hearing was a thirst for a substantive narrative. Stories that challenge the powerful, stories that give voice to the overlooked, stories that empower, stories that illuminate the arcane.

Amen! That is why most journalists got into the business. The most interesting journalism does more than regurgitate facts. Good journalism uses words to put flesh on a community's skeleton.

I do believe newspapers get an unfair shake by the mainstream-media haters. (No MSM abbreviation here. I still work at a newspaper.) I concede there are things we could do much better. Journalists fall into the ruts. Quoting the same official sources repeatedly. Missing communities because there is no public-relations machine navigating the gatekeepers.

The journalist's job has become more difficult because of some external newsroom forces. Technology has knocked newspapers off kilter. Gone are the days when classified ads generated cash as fast as a press printed the paper. Financial problems have been further compounded by consolidation.

Proponents of consolidation use incomprehensible business-speak to justify buying more. Newspapers become "properties"; Web sites, television stations, radio stations and the printed page become "platforms." In reality, these are just terms money-changers use to excite Wall Street. Great journalism does not happen quarter to quarter. Great journalism is curiosity layered upon a fluid expanse of time.

I heard from some journalists at the conference that colleagues have been told not to cover media consolidation. I hate to hear that, but believe it.

The Federal Communications Commission has held two official hearings regarding the rules that govern media ownership. The hearings were covered only by The Associated Press and the local papers where the hearings were held. This is one of the most important public-policy issues ever. Yet, hardly any major newspapers are writing about it, or are not writing about it aggressively.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in 2004, 68 percent of America's daily circulation was controlled by a handful of the largest newspaper chains. The number bumped up to an obscene 73 percent on Sunday. These numbers show that almost all the major metro papers have been swallowed by chains — chains that believe starving newspapers for Wall Street gains is a sustainable business model.

I was struck by what Eric Klinenberg, New York University professor and author of "Fighting For Air: The Battle To Control America's Media," said while moderating a panel:

"No matter how hard we try, it is hard to transform media consolidation into something that hits home," he said. "We need to tell stories that hit home."

Notice the use of "we." No longer do people who care about consolidation and its ill effects on democracy feel they can rely on newspapers to tell the story. The void is being filled by low-power radio, blogs and consumer groups.

Journalists should not fear this group storytelling. We should weave our stories through those being told outside the traditional method. Journalists have an opportunity to show the public that we are listening, and that we are willing to leave the cocoon of the newsroom.

Send me your stories. I am listening.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003531090_ryan19.html.

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