journalists still matter

I’ve come from Ohio to New York City for a meeting on “Media and Communications at the Crossroads: The Role of Scholarship for Media Justice and Reform.” At the meeting, my friend Lew Friedland just argued that daily news journalism is still essential to the “media ecology.” I’d put the argument as follows:

It’s true that people get news, ideas, and values from their family and friends and from multiple electronic sources, including the web portals of Yahoo and other Internet-service providers (which are regular news sources for 15% of young people); comedy TV (a regular source for 21% of youth); and talk radio (16%). (See this Pew Research Center poll.) However, Yahoo’s headlines simply come from wire services–hence, from reporters. Comedy writers get most of their material from daily newspapers. Friedland estimates that 90% of the news stories on local TV come from a local newspaper. Debates in the blogosphere are very often triggered by reported news. Fictional programs like “Law and Order” are inspired by print journalism. Therefore, influential conversations in the kitchen, the office water-cooler, and church often derive ultimately from a newspaper.

If this is right, then we cannot consider citizen media and other new means of communication and discussion in isolation. They are dependent on the state of conventional, professional journalism–which isn’t good. Newspapers are highly profitable but are cutting their staff and budgets for reporting. Two thirds of national journalists believe that bottom-line pressure is hurting news coverage–causing the press to avoid complex issues, to be sloppy, and to be timid. (Source.) Bloggers can complain about newspaper journalists from various angles; they can’t replace them.

1 thought on “journalists still matter

  1. dcrussell

    I think I agree in part with Prof. Levine’s basic thesis, but not entirely. It may be that newspaper journalists who try to be comprehensive cannot be replaced, but blogs can certainly supplement them, and partially replace them for specialized or localized news.

    I view my blogs, not as a replacements of journalists, nor as a complaint site, but rather as a supplement to the incomplete and inconsistent reporting of local news in Prince George’s County.

    I started blogging after a neighbor was murdered a few years ago and I discovered that at that time, only about half of the county’s homicides were ever reported by the local newspapers. What was worse was that no single outlet reported even half–one paper would reprt some, another paper others, but there was no attempt to be comprehensive.

    My goals were to (1) aggregate all the information I could from the various press sources, becomi and become the single best homicide news source–at least for basic facts and identifying victims, and (2) try to shame the madia and the police department into doing a better job.

    I’ve partially succeeded. In 2005 I had information on upwards of 99% of the homicides (lacking a few that nobody–press or police–bothered to report on a current basis, and the Police Department, Gazette, and Post each reported between 80 and 85% of the county’s homicides (but not all the same 80-85%).

    The Washington Times makes no real effort to report local homicides and the Examiner’s record is spotty, but maybe about 50% over the year.

    While my preferred primary source is the police department (as it often is for “real” journalists), they do a very poor job of putting out timely press releases and make it very difficult for the public to research crime data.

    I regularly post homicide data before the Gazette does (partly because they go to press once a week and no longer are serious about the “daily” updates they regularly posted before September 1), and post information that is never published in two of our daily newspapers. So, while my blog may not replace the “real” newspaper journalists of the Post, I’d say it does replace the newspaper journalists of the Examiner and Times.

    Looking at another area, I regularly read “Records and Archives in the News” a fairly comprehensive, normally daily, summary of items on those topics. Much of the compilers information comes from newspaper stories which were published only in one or a handful of papers, but a substantial minority come from world-wide non-newspaper sources, including law reviews and other journals, press releases, and what have you. I’d estimate that the Washington Post carries less that 5% of what is in the compilations.

    I don’t know what this all means for the future of newspaper journalists. They may be the single most important early source of news, but don’t seem to be the most efficient means of disseminating it.

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