September 29, 2004

News Media vs. Journalism

It's time, once again, to make the distinction between the "news media" and journalism.

The "news media," singular, is an ever-growing, ill-defined collection of broadcasters, scribblers, shouters, saints and sinners, many operating purely out of self-interest, that, collectively, demands public attention and, individually, competes amongst itself for it, but is increasingly distrusted despite - or perhaps because of - all efforts to win public confidence.

Journalism is a subset of that clamor, something committed more or less intentionally and falling at various times on all points of the scale that extends from rubbish (some) to mediocrity (a lot) to excellence (a few).

We need less "news media" and more journalism - and only the journalists can make that happen by holding firm against the temptation to discard the elements of good journalism, the first of Jay Rosen and Bill Kovach define an obligation to the truth, in favor of self-aggrandizement, sloppiness in haste to beat out the competition, outright fraud or, more commonly, acceptance of standards that say this story, this headline, this photograph is "good enough" when it simply isn't.

Let's apply this thinking to newspapers.

Public trust will return to newspaper journalism when newspaper journalists return to their core purposes, pursue them relentlessly and abandon the obsolete notion of competing against television, the Internet, etc. for the people's time. This fight is not about time. It's about credibility and commitment to community.

One of these core purposes is to encourage understanding of and participation in the democratic process, which I'll define in the least partisan way possible: Data, discourse, debate and decision about the common good of society.

I began thinking along these lines this morning when I read Leonard Witt's interview with Buzz Merritt, aka the "godfather of civic journalism."

At one point Merritt says journalism is "impeding" the solution of society's most fundamental problems: "whether our cities get better; whether democracy fulfills its promise." He explains further:

"We have an obligation to do more than render important issues as bipolar conflict between extreme viewpoints, our reflexive method. A fundamental problem cannot be solved until people understand not only their stake in the issue but also the stakes of others all across the spectrum. In a democracy, resolution almost always comes in some middle ground and too much of our political journalism fails to illuminate the middle ground, so people do not see or appreciate the possibilities of resolution and stay out of the process." ( Emphasis added.)

Journalism, and newspapers in particular, have made a fundamental mistake. As the society fragmented and new media bloomed to serve the disparate sections, newspapers weaned themselves from their belief in mass media and attempted to woo each demographic slice differently. As a result, today we have columns for seniors, sections for teens and weeklies in Spanish - and a typical newspaper news report dominated by mundane institutional coverage that stenographically records incremental movements in government, but, like the blind man touching the elephant's trunk and deeming it a snake, fails to see the larger beast.

Coverage for the old, the young or the bilingual is not a bad thing, but newspapers cannot succeed - and are not succeeding - by offering a unsatisfying tasting menu of news, a small bite for every taste. The money, the time and the talent devoted to creating this daily buffet (to serve out this metaphor to the final course) has diverted the kitchen's attention from the classic dishes: Ongoing commitment to quality, watchdog reporting, contextual, explanatory analysis, lively, fun writing. Give me a platter of those; hold the column on financing my retirement and the extra serving of planning commission stories.

I am not arguing for a resurrection - or continuation in most cases - of old forms of journalism. Society has changed. Technology has changed. Journalism must change to reflect both. A good place to start is, to borrow from Hodding Carter, to relinquish the idea of reflecting the community and instead be the community, meaning that journalists should stop wondering what people want from their newspapers and instead concentrate on what they need for their communities.

"News media" is everywhere and I don't bemoan it. The very diversity of "news media," coupled with the explosion of "personal media" (another subset) fuels an increasing public interest in news of all sorts - much as the arrival of the VCR increased rather than diminished, as some Hollywood worrywarts predicted, interest in the movies -- presents a unique historical opportunity to display the differences between journalism and media.

A year-and-a-half ago I wrote:

"Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism."

I believe that's even truer today. [Read: There's Nothing Left but the Journalism ]

 PJNet Buzz Merritt: News Media Must Regain Vigor, Courage

Posted by Tim Porter at September 29, 2004 10:25 AM