Monday, April 7, 2014

Journalism: Best of Times, Worst of Times

It's Conference on World Affairs time again, the week when students
and folks from the Boulder community mingle to hear lively discussions
about what's going on in the world.

Catching my ear today was a panel on the state of journalism. Most of
the participants didn't have degrees in Journalism and got into the
field by the seat of their pants, so it was fascinating to see how,
along the way, they became respected professionals.

Dan Gillmor writes a column on media and technology for The Guardian,
is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for
the People (2004), a book that explains the rise of citizens' media
and why it matters. Dan did his best to appear generally
optimistic. Since the days when advertisers deserted newspapers in
favor of the Internet, the business side has been slowly improving, he
felt. The "ecosystem" of news is evolving and growing. Even think
tanks like the Cato Institute are writing about topics like civil
liberties. Glitzy startups like Vox Media are working to fill a niche
with "explanatory journalism" (everything you need to know about Syria
in a nutshell, for example). He actually envies today's students, who
he thinks will have a great future to look forward to. The one thing
he feels is being lost is local news, i.e., its watchdog role. Crooks
used to be afraid that someone may be watching.

Josh Rogin claimed to be the youngest of the panel, and got his start
working for a large Japanese daily.  He talked about changes in the
way people consume news, saying it has been changing completely every
18 months. Readers found it became too hard to go to individual news
sources and began using search engines, then moved more recently to
trusted social sites (eg., Buzzfeed, and Politico). The upshot is that
he's had five jobs in 10 years, including Newsweek/Daily Beast, saying
that it's been necessary to constantly hustle to stay gainfully
employed. He's built a strong network of contacts so he can jump from
job to job if necessary. Josh's story was striking, in that to me it
resembled how engineers of the past have worked. A project ends, and
you move on to the next employer. When I went to Journalism school in
the 70s, one thing I definitely wanted to avoid was being in sales and
marketing for a living. Now marketing yourself is part of your living.

Monika Bauerlein from Mother Jones was less optimistic than
Gillmor. She said 14,000 jobs have been lost in the past decade, while
only a couple thousand have come back from new startups such as
Vox. She wants journalists to be professionals and to be paid for
their work, which is increasingly difficult. Mother Jones uses every
money-making opportunity (reader appeals and grants included) and
still barely scrapes by. She stressed how expensive it is to fund all
the journalism that people need or would like to see. Monika wasn't
totally dismissive of Josh's hustle, saying you need to get eyeballs
on your stuff, but the money problem still is there for the industry
as a whole.

Jurek Martin was the grand old man of the bunch, having worked for
decades for the Financial Times of London. He also never majored in
Journalism and originally got his job by explaining to an editor how
baseball was played. He enjoyed his career as a "gatekeeper" who took
pride in providing quality news from all over the world. He believes
in being right the first time, rather than rushing to press and later
having to correct it. "The truth will lag terribly." He also quoted
Johnson about pay: "Only a fool writes for free." He talked about
Gawker, which is thinking of paying bloggers by number of hits. "The
problem with that is that 95% of the readers are bonkers, and the
other 5% are nasty." Yet he is still optimistic that somehow,
somewhere, news, analysis and straight reporting will continue--"if we
can just find it."

In the Q&A, a number of students asked about whether it was worthwhile
to get a Journalism degree. Most of the panelists felt that it might
be worth it from a good program, especially because it might provide
valuable contacts for that first job. But a general knowledge degree
is equally helpful in teaching communication and critical thinking

One audience member asked why the media don't call "bullshit" on
liars, such as in the so-called climate debate. Jurek said it's a
valid criticism and offered an anecdote about how the Wall Street
Journal caved on investigating a Chinese oligarch for fear of seeming
"unbalanced." Gillmor was thrilled by the question, but said it is up
to the public nowadays to be their own gatekeepers, because "we have no

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