Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Journalism's pressing issue: Just the facts


What do you think is the most important problem facing journalism in the U.S. today?

The thought gives pause. Indiana University asks practitioners every decade as part of its survey "The American Journalist." How would a journalist answer today?

Five years ago Yahoo! Answers posed the same question to its readers. The "best answer" was that journalists are biased, uninformed, lazy, repressed and insincere. This crowdsourced response is found in the same Internet search as a newspaper's 600-word announcement that its writer will participate in this year's I.U. study. The reporter is "excited and humbled" by the opportunity but fails to note that the research is a 20- to 30-minute commitment by randomly selected participants to take an online poll. Reading this news, it seems the community on Yahoo! has a point.

It's understandable if journalists see their issues as existential. Layoffs have been a continuing threat as as my employer, my previous employer and media companies nationwide worked through bankruptcy. More joining the ranks monthly, most recently GateHouse Media. Other publishers have sold at half their value of a few years ago. Yet this is old news. Newspaper circulation has been in a 60-year decline. Newspapers were merging or folding throughout my high school and college years, leaving many cities with a single daily newspaper. The Chicago Tribune I read in the 1970s was the same size as today's product. Business and sports did not even rate separate sections.

The consolidation continues, yet news in print has far from disappeared. Printing plants in Chicago are busy publishing The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Growth in broadcast and online media have assured there's no monopoly on the news; the pain point is that there's no monopoly on advertising either. Entertainment channels and websites sell to local audiences, sapping news outlets of their pricing power.

Debate over journalism's ethics is nothing new either; ethics codes have been part of the profession for a century. And writers largely aspire to news ethics: Outside the mainstream, minority voices are no longer samizdat – opinions can travel as far as the web can carry them. Yet lone bloggers aspire to the ethos of journalism, and Internet movie-magazine throwbacks like TMZ build reputations on getting stories fast and getting them right. If journalism is facing an ethical crisis, an Internet army is willing to pick up the gantlet.

While journalists should be concerned about ethics and the economy, they've met these challenges before. What makes the climb so steep is the that the value of news has faded in the public mind. Long-running Pew research shows negative attitudes toward the press at record lows.

Cynical readers believe news organizations tell truth to power; fairness and honesty are also widely questioned. Pew finds a ray of light in public support for investigative journalism. It's an expensive way to earn trust. Yet without a watchdog spirit, journalism's halo will dim just as non-traditional competition requires news to be trustworthy.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is new to journalism but seems to have a grasp of the new competition. Talking with reporters and editors at the paper he's taking over, the Washington Post, he acknowledges that they can spend months on a project that the Huffington Post can summarize "in 17 minutes." Bezos wants to make quality journalism a regular habit, and there is evidence that that's a lucrative strategy. Online still accounts for only a fraction of newspaper ad revenues. Yet Google economist Hal Varian notes that if readers spend as much time on a news website as with a print newspaper, the revenues are comparable.

If media seeking an engaged audience are banking on quality in a marketplace crowded with aggregators, they had better hope customers can spot the difference. Here the signs are not encouraging. This week Popular Science dropped comments on its web posts, noting continuing "debate" over evolution, climate change and other issues long settled in the sciences. The magazine cited a University of Wisconsin finding that negative comments skew perceptions of a news report.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, debate on the debt ceiling and health care devolved into a dramatic reading of "Green Eggs and Ham." With political debate increasingly untethered from fact, how long can journalism hang on?

It's really not up to journalists to change the state of journalism, or of politics for that matter. This weekend at the joining brunch table, a debate was raging over the media's role in the government shutdown, presenting Obamacare's ostensible faults as facts. In fact the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act, as well as its many compromises, have been plumbed for years in deep detail – in print, in broadcast documentaries and online. The details simply are not running in an endless loop every night on Eyewitness News. If voters haven't been paying attention, it's their own damn fault.

As long as voters, or parents, or shoppers are content with a shallow dip rather than a deep dive into the day's news, politicians and administrators and marketers will are more than willing to meet them with a handful of factoids. If consumers think they're not being leveled with, it's their challenge to raise the level of discourse. They need to reward the news media's curiosity with their own. It's the only hope for better journalism and a better democracy.