Woodward and Bernstein don’t live here anymore

June 19, 2009

If an investigative reporter finds out that someone has been robbing the store, that may be ‘gotcha’ journalism, but it’s also good journalism.“– Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post

“I think there are a lot of critics who think that . . . . if we did not stand up [in the run-up to the war] and say ‘this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this,’ that we didn’t do our job. I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role” — David Gregory, NBC News

Last night I attended a roundtable discussion at my local library, with panelists Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian, and Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian, our two metro dailies, as well as Marvin Case, publisher of The Reflector.

The topic of the discussion was “The Future of Newspapers in Our (PDX) Metro Area,” as in, do they have one? Since I work in this industry, I’m curious to see what my career prospects are — especially since I’d hoped, starting out, to one day see Bhatia’s or Campbell’s signature on my paycheck.

The prospects are not encouraging: The Big O is shedding jobs left and right, The Columbian has filed Chapter 11.  As for The Reflector, it’s a small-town, small-time weekly that publishes half as frequently as my current job and looks considerably worse, in terms of page design (print and Web both). Not exactly a move up the career ladder.

So, what is the future of our local print media institutions? Judging by the audience, I would say “dismal.” The forum drew a crowd of about 50 people. Of that number, about six, counting myself, were age 30 or younger — and of that number, two were relatives and/or employees of the panelists.

Those three wise men didn’t have any new ideas, either. The future is new media, news delivered to your iPhone, streaming video, interactivity, blogs, etc,. etc.  Heard it all before. The present revenue model is 80 percent print advertising revenue, 20 percent subscriptions. What’s the sustainable revenue model for digital journalism? Dunno.

Campbell said that at the Columbian’s high-water mark, online ad sales were bringing in 10 percent of total revenue. He thinks that the online newsroom of the future (i.e. one that makes extensive use of unpaid stringers “citizen journalists”) could sustain itself with online ad sales making up 30 percent of revenue, Web-based subscriptions 5 percent, and the rest from a mix of endowment funding (from whom, exactly?) government funding (ah, there’s the answer) and of course, iTunes-style “micropayments” — for articles instead of songs, an idea which will either save newswriting as we know it or destroy the industry entirely. 

But more to the point, what’s going to make someone want to spend the 99 cents reading the story I wrote  some news article, versus buying the new single from some band?  Doesn’t the news have to be at least as entertaining?  Assume costs and coverage are equal: what makes a reader choose one news site over another?

Or, as someone else who noted all the grey hairs in the room asked the panel, is this an economic issue or a demographic one?  As Campbell admitted in response, “we don’t edit the news for 23-year-olds.”

Well, what can we do about that? Who has some ideas about how to make reporting an entertaining, as well as informative, commodity that users (or advertisers) will pay for? Dan Froomkin, a skilled reporter with the Washington Post, who has plenty of online experience, wrote an essay on that topic. What does he have to say?

What is it about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that makes them so refreshing and attractive to a wide variety of viewers (including those so-important younger ones)? I would argue that, more than anything else, it is that they enthusiastically call bullshit.

Hmmmm.

I’m not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms — why, in fact, it’s so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons. There’s the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There’s the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There’s the fear of being labeled partisan if one’s bullshit-calling isn’t meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

Indeed — one of the aging Baby Boomers at the forum got up to chew the panelists out for “bias.” With his next breath he admitted he was a teabagger and unhappy with how that story was covered this April.  I myself covered the local spontaneous demonstration “tea party” and made sure to mention (as the preceeding link shows) that it’s an Astroturf movement, a photo op staged by the GOP. That’s not bias. Bias is when you declare that anyone who took an active part in one of those “tea parties” is officially too stupid to live. Now, where were we?

But here’s the good news for you newsroom managers wringing your hands over new technologies and the loss of younger audiences: Because the Internet so values calling bullshit, you are sitting on an as-yet largely untapped gold mine. I still believe that no one is fundamentally more capable of first-rate bullshit-calling than a well-informed beat reporter – whatever their beat. We just need to get the editors, or the corporate culture, or the self-censorship – or whatever it is – out of the way.

There we go! This is the kind of plan that I as a reporter can get behind whole-heartedly. This Froomkin guy is sharp as a tack.  I wonder what else he’s been up to lately?

Dan Froomkin, deputy editor for Nieman Watchdog, has just been fired from his main job as writer of the online White House Watch column for the Washington Post. (SOURCE)

Wait, what? Why would they DO that?

The “why” is easy: he made too many people at the Post who were busy writing about how Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons or how there is more sea ice than there was a generation ago or how “opinions on shape of earth differ” look foolish.(SOURCE)

So let me get this straight: The Washington Post, a newspaper famous for exposing governmental abuse of power, just fired someone for … exposing governmental abuse of power.

Jesus wept. I wonder if my uncle can get me into the plumber’s union?

(Hat tip to Glenn Greenwald, the man, the myth, the legend …)

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