Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Why? Because as surely as D'Antonio meant "Sneer When You Say 'Journalist'" to be a serious, well-researched critique of the changing nature of news and its aftereffects - which it very much is - his loving nostalgia for the ethos and values of journalism ("The professionals in my circle of devoted and veteran (read middle-aged and older) editors and writers are working as diligently as ever."), and his mournful chronology of the dilution of quality journalism in the rising tide of opinion, infotainment and Buzz ("the publicity and chatter that hovers around a hot book, article, film or TV program"), give the piece the funereal air of an obituary. And, as a journalist, I'm not yet ready to read my own obit.
Depending on your own definition of journalism (read "The Elements of Journalism") and, subsequently, what role it should play in a democratic society, you may consider D'Antonio's eulogistic remembrances nothing more than a paean to an elitist past when the power of the press truly belonged only to the very few who owned one, or you may respond with a sense of alarm and urgency that will compel you to do whatever you can to preserve and reinforce the boundary between journalism and entertainment and opinion.
D'Antonio correctly diagnoses journalism's ailments as rooted in the over-pursuit of readership against competitors with fewer scruples but broader distribution, but he prescribes no remedies.
That is unfortunate because I believe newspapers, ironically the most endangered of the journalism species, have the most to gain from the fragmentation not only of media but of journalistic values.
In a day when "fair and accurate" is interpreted - and litigated over - as biased and false, and when pundits (like myself) proliferate faster than IP addresses, the core values of quality journalism - pursuit of truth, civic responsibility, respect for community - become not the deadweight anchors that some say have prevented newspapers from following the currents of change (that is a newsroom and management cultural issue), but rather substantial underpinnings that can support the heavylifting of solid reporting, enlightened editing, informed opinion and technological innovation that, together, equal compelling content.
In other words, when the word "journalist" is devalued because anyone with a microphone, camera or FTP program claims to be one, those who actually practice journalism will become unique - and therefore more valuable.
Don't get me wrong - journalism is many things, including opinion and commentary, and it arrives on many platforms. But I believe in what Seattle Times reporter Eric Nalder, quoted by D'Antonio, calls "real journalism."
"Real journalism doesn't distort the truth for effect, and it isn't hyped to the point where it is no longer a reliable representation of the world around us," Nalder says. "The trouble is, that line is crossed in a lot of mediums all too often."
D'Antonio reports that "a recent Shorenstein Center survey of consumers of journalism found that most-a 5 to 3 ratio-think the quality of the news media has declined," an negative opinion directly related to the growth in the amount of "soft news."
If the public is confused by where news ends and where opinion and entertainment begin - and it is - newspapers must mark their ground more plainly and make a stand for quality journalism. It may not bring them more readers (although I think it will), but at least those who are reading will get more for their quarters.
Michael D'Antonio Sneer When You Say 'Journalist'
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Doing Well and Doing Good: How Soft News and Critical Journalism Are Shrinking the News Audience and Weakening Democracy -- And What News Outlets Can Do About it