We have to start talking about journalism in the United States, and specifically the decline of journalism. Newspapers, television programs, and online news sites have been talking for years about how to fix the problems of circulation, readership, viewership, and competition from social media platforms, but I don’t think they’re going deep enough.
I’ve been working on a new fiction manuscript for some months now. The story is rooted in a community and the people who live there. An event happens that attracts the news media, both local and national. While the event and the role of the media are only a small part of the story, I’ve spent time researching news media, news, and how (and often why) certain event are covered.
This wasn’t a big stretch; my B.A. degree is in journalism, and I worked with journalists for most of my professional career in corporate communications. For three decades after I graduated from college, journalism remained recognizable. In 2003-2004, I was the director of communications for St. Louis Public Schools, amid a highly controversial reorganization. I dealt with journalists daily. I was interviewed daily, and usually by multiple reporters. (My first interview occurred 15 minutes into my first day on the job, when a TV reporter wanted a statement on a teacher sickout. I hadn’t even filled out my HR paperwork when I was standing before a camera.)
As crazy and hectic as it was, this was journalism, and particularly local journalism, that I knew and understood. The reporters were covering news that people in the community cared about. They may have liked it or hated it, but there was no question it was important to them.
In 2004, I returned to corporate communications, responsible for a very specific slice of company issues. I was still dealing with journalism that I knew. My colleagues responsible for more general media issues, however, were dealing with a journalism that seemed almost alien. The reporters were less reporter and more activist. They asked questions like reporters, but their stories often reflected nothing of what the discussion had been about. Staff meetings often became brainstorm sessions on how to deal with this.
The issue lasted for years. Ultimately, only one thing was going to work: calling out the reporter for a bad or misleading story – and publishing the reprimand on the company web site or blog. It’s difficult to imagine the internal opposition to this – embarrassing a reporter was something you simply did not do. It was resisted for years, but nothing else worked. What finally broke the opposition was a story that postured as news but was so obviously propaganda that even a publication widely read by journalists called the reporters out. The company published the reprimand on its blog site. The awful reporting subsided for a long time after that.
What was new in reporting back then seems to be standard operating procedure today. Newspapers like to think the internet has eaten their lunch. And it has – particularly in classified and other kinds of advertising. But reporting barely disguised as activist opinion has had its effect as well – I know a lot of people who stopped subscribing to the local newspaper because the bias was blatant.
And there’s no question that the newspaper has a bias, but what’s interesting is that the bias occurs mostly in national news stories, obtained by the paper’s subscription to wire services like the Associated Press and syndicates like Washington Post. Local coverage has severely diminished over the years, but the paper generally does a credible job with local news. (That is, unless local news becomes national news, then it reports like everyone else.)
Where I live is increasingly unusual in that my suburb of St. Louis shares a weekly community newspaper with a few other adjacent communities. It covers what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch cannot – local council and school board meetings, local development proposals, sales and property tax issues, and other issues that affect and often deeply concern people in the community. It has a lively letters-to-the-editor page that usually has only letters about local issues, events, and concerns. What the newspaper does, sometimes well and sometimes imperfectly, is facilitate democracy and self-government.
People are looking closely at the connection between newspapers, and the decline of newspapers, and the increasing inability of the United States to govern itself, except by crisis. Next week, I’ll have a post about a newspaper that tried some rather innovative – it dropped all references to national news and issues from its opinion pages.
Photograph of The New York Times by Wan Chen via Unsplash. Used with permission.