Monday, January 11, 2010

A lesson in subtlety: Newspapers rule and all other media suck my ass

As you can probably guess from hearing me rant about journalism, I'm an old-school newspaper purist. I don't trust any other form of media, nor do I have much faith in the capability of other media to achieve the same level of quality or serve the same vital watchdog role as newspapers.

So you can imagine why I'm so depressed that newspapers are starting to suck.

Without quality newspapers, along with their vibrant staffing of superior reporters and funding for investigative projects, the state of American journalism is dead. The current downfall of print already is painful and debilitating, but you can bet that it will be much worse when we eventually rely solely on press release re-writes, gotcha celebrity drivel, weak oversight of our continually corrupt government and unskilled, agenda-driven Internet bloggers.

How can I know this? Simple concept: Newspapers drive American journalism. No other source of information plays such a crucial role in feeding other forms of media than print. In TV news, assignment editors are expected to read the newspaper to gather story ideas. Radio cites newspapers, and newspaper reporters are featured as expert witnesses to the dealings of the day. Internet journalism -- a phrase I use in the loosest possible sense -- would cease to exist in its current form without the luxury of linking to or quoting from newspaper stories.

Even if newspapers simply move their operations completely online, thus transforming Internet journalism, it's still hopeless until a miraculous new funding model can be introduced. Online revenue models for newspapers don't begin to make up for the advertising dollars that print sales used to provide, which in turn allowed for the kind of staffing and talent necessary to be the superior form of media in terms of quality. Currently, a majority of newspapers are giving away their content for free on the Internet. There surely needs to be something between free and profit that allows newspapers to thrive on the Web, and right now nobody seems to know what the hell that might be.

A story out today found that newspapers still provide a vast majority of the original local content, while the Internet only graced us with 6% of original reporting. The study also found that competing with the Internet -- that is, competing with a medium that provides its content for free -- is leading newspapers down a dangerous road of posting press release re-writes online just to get the information out quicker, and then sometimes not even updating or writing legitimate stories to follow up.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept of press release re-writes, let me give you a brief overview: It's a bullshit, lazy way to be a journalist. An organization sends the reporter a brief statement of "facts" that the journalist then re-writes in his or her own words without fact-checking or even really providing any original thought. The "story" is then regurgitated back to the masses as if actual journalism were done. This is the kind of reporting that has become necessary, according to the study, in order for newspapers to convince the American public that they are still relevant, in the sense that they are able to vomit out questionable material at a fast enough pace.

We can gather from all this that the Internet is not only killing newspapers -- it's actually destroying journalism. The daily newspaper model of researching and carefully crafting stories may not serve us in our give-it-to-me-now culture, but it damn well works out when it comes to providing quality, factual, reliable, credible information. Journalism schools don't really teach you to write; they teach you to think, question and analyze. We can only hope that those skills eventually fit in with the American desire for instant informational gratification.

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy the luxury or reading my news online. But if a newspaper staff isn't writing it, and a city desk isn't editing it, and a copy desk isn't fact-checking it, then it's simply not credible for me. Working in the American newspaper industry has given me a certain perspective and expectation for quality journalism, and I'll stack it up to any other form of media in the world, hands down.