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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Are Newspaper Journalists to Blame?

Dear Newspaper Journalist,

You're misunderstood, not just in terms of how vital your newspapers are as news-gathering organizations, but for what you do, or, rather, what you don't do, or maybe just what people think you don't do on purpose.

Seriously, people don't get you.

Never mind what you know. Of course, you consider media conspiracy theories ridiculous, if only because your ranks are teeming with so many Type A personalities that even the mere whiff of a newsroom plot would result in a stampede for the exits with everyone vying to be the first to blow the whistle and win the Pulitzer.

Out there in the World Wide Web, however, it sounds like you're in cahoots to dupe the universe.

And that's not all. A lot of people also appear to believe you've got some mad desire to continue killing trees by maintaining paper as your primary news-delivery method, as though you're secretly addicted to those nauseating chemical solvent smells that so often waft from the press into the newsroom, as though you enjoy the added deadline stress of having some desk editor admonish you with statements like: "Those are union drivers waitin' out there, mister." As if ... as if ...

Paper? Good riddance.

No doubt, the Internet is both your industry's present and future, and you dominate the Web as much as you dominate the airwaves. Regardless of the medium, the overwhelming majority of mainstream news is first reported by newspapers, then followed by everybody else. Newspaper journalists mine the gold, and now you're getting the shaft.

The latest grim predictions are all but foregone conclusions. The former editor of The Des Moines Register Geneva Overholser, who is now the director of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism, recently stated her best bet during an appearance on the KCET program SoCal Connected:
"We're going to have major American cities with no daily newspaper within the next year. I'm willing to bet quite a bit of money on that. We have newspapers for sale around the country in cities from Miami, to Denver, to Seattle, to San Diego, and no one wants to buy them."

You and Overholser surely see the colossal domino effect to come, not just for newspapers, but for all the other news organizations that harvest newspaper content, as well as for the democracy over which all you journalists keep watch.

Still, there are countless other bright people blissfully waving you goodbye.

"Shut up."

That's what Wonkette said a couple weeks ago in response to the petition launched to highlight your plight.

If it's sympathy and understanding you seek, you probably won't find it at blogs like Wonkette:
"What you’re so pathetically grieving is your fading culture, a masturbatory profession of over-educated overpaid typists who had a stranglehold on American journalism for 30 years or so ..."

The reader comments on that one were even less flattering.

Yet, as unreasonable as all that may seem to you, it's not the reason so few signatures have appeared on the petition that calls for a week-long blackout of all free-access newspaper Web sites.

The effort to emphasize your importance to society and democracy has gone viral.

The YouTube video explaining the petition's intent has logged more than 2,400 views. In addition, more than 45 different Web and print publications have either reported or opined on the petition's merits.

Some comments have even been favorable, though perhaps the most telling observation came from a journalist who blogs as scoopgirl. She says she expects to soon be counted among the casualties of budget cutbacks:
"Sadly, the people who run this industry (from the WSJ to the NYT to my own bosses) appear to be thinking in the short term for a new business model. The layoffs will help the bottom line, for now.

But with fewer reporters, there will be less news. We will lose those necessary eyes, for both our advertising purposes and our information purposes. It's a vicious cycle.

So, at the end of the day, I just don't know that I believe that a day without online news is the answer. Or maybe it is, for calling attention to a service many people take for granted.

Yet another point of view comes from Just Journalism, a blog that observes the "online petition has only attracted 163 signatures."

The current total is displayed in the box at right.

So, why so few signatures?

It's certainly possible that the idea proposed by the petition is more ridiculous than, say, asking people to work for free.

Or the reason could be you -- newspaper journalists.

From the onset, the petition effort was sure to be a difficult sell simply because journalists are so averse to putting their mark on anything resembling a petition.

Admirable as that standard may be, it's nonetheless a stumbling block for those seeking to draw attention to your cause.

If you're waiting on the suits and CEOs to save you ... well ... the layoff rolls are filled with the names of former newspaper journalists who were waiting on the same thing.

You must get actively involved in this, but, rather than ask you to go against your own code, how about this: What if all you had to do was what you do best?

What if all you had to do was to take the time to communicate this complex issue to those closest to you, to explain why newspapers matter to your wives and husbands, your mothers and fathers, your brothers and sisters, your best friends and neighbors?

That's it. Just explain and encourage them to pass on that wisdom to their friends and family. And, of course, it couldn't hurt to point all these people in the direction of the official petition Web site at KnowNewspapers.blogspot.com.

No ethical standards stand in the way of any of that. And, no doubt, you've probably been doing plenty of that for years already.

Do more of it.

Of course, the alternative is to let everyone else sort it out, including those who don't want anything more to do with your sort. Unlike you, however, they don't seem to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

— TJ Sullivan

Cross posted at LA Observed.

* KnowNewspapers.blogspot.com is the official site of the Web blackout petition.

"No News" logo by Will Sweat.

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