Monday, January 05, 2009

The media: masquerading but still alive?

This morning the New York Times featured an ad on its front page. The business section explained it as the paper’s “latest concession to the worst revenue slide since the Depression.”

While the media’s biggest fish is conceding what would be essential news space to much needed revenue from advertising, newspapers around the country are taking even bigger hits.

Many have shut down their international bureaus completely, others rely on wire services for national stories. The American Journalism Review reports that cutbacks are being experienced even in the Washington bureaus of most regional papers. Jennifer Dorroh points out the real problem with this: significant stories are often the result of the Washington focus of local papers; a notable example is the story about the scandal involving Randy Duke Cunningham, which was first broken by the San Diego Union-Tribune. A news item involving a local Congressman would neither be in the interest of a national paper nor catch the eye of an avid blogger writing about national politics.

In an even more bizarre and disconcerting twist to journalism, papers are having local stories outsourced to reporters thousands of miles away. Pasadena Now, a local paper in California has been outsourcing the city’s council meetings to writers in Mumbai and Bangalore for the past year. A couple months ago, James Macpherson, the paper’s editor, caused a furor by declaring that this might well be the future of journalism itself.

But then again, might we be declaring the death of journalism much too quickly? After all, civilians are snapping photos of terrorist bombings and bridge collapses on cell phone cameras and passing them along to news organizations in real time. Citizens are functioning as first responders during natural disasters, and relaying accounts of their personal experiences in breaking news stories. With the Internet bringing the world closer, maybe a journalist no longer needs to be in a specific place at a specific time. Maybe a citizen can capture the same photo or video that a reporter might have had to “be there for” just a few years ago.

As Kathleen Parker notes in the Washington Post, while the news industry might have “transmogrified,” it is by no means dead. The fact that twitterers report breaking news in real time, and that bloggers dissect and analyze reports from different parts of the world might add to and enhance traditional journalism, but it doesn’t make it dispensable.

I’m with Parker. Call me a journalism traditionalist, but in-depth, investigative news stories cannot be written without a reporter living in a region, interacting with its denizens and observing livelihoods. Even as I’m writing this, my Twitter sidebar is updating me on the Ghaza siege, but I wouldn’t consider myself thoroughly informed till I read a detailed account in the Guardian, or better yet, wait for the next issue of the Atlantic.

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes ten thousand hours to become good at something. It certainly takes at least a couple hundred to write a good story.