Monday, August 10, 2009

Why there’s still room for a professional, independent press


As I’ve mentioned before, I make my living as a public relations guy.

I started out in the newspaper business, practiced law for a few years, went back into journalism and eventually would up with a PR gig. I visit with our friends in the press on a regular basis and have heard more than a bit of concern from some of those folks over the direction in which the media seems to be heading.

Specifically, the newspapers, television and radio news outlets have been laying off an alarming number of people here in Arkansas and it seems newspapers are actually shrinking in size as their owners try to figure out ways to combat shrinking revenue. That’s a true shame because the simple fact is that we need a healthy, independent and professional group of journalists out digging up stories and reporting.

Otherwise we’re looking at the grim prospect of the news being generated by the government, corporations, trade associations and other groups with a vested interest in what information the public has and what it doesn’t. With fewer reporters out there these days, there are a lot of people getting their news directly from those aforementioned outlets and that’s simply no damned good at all.

If you want to know how bad things are getting out there, I know of one organization (which shall remained unnamed) that has concluded that balanced, fair reporting is balanced or fair at all. The theory here is that there can only be one correct side of certain stories – the aforementioned organization is always right and any opinion to the contrary is simply wrong. What value is there, after all, in letting an incorrect opinion get loose in the public? If the highly-stylized “we’re right and everyone else is wrong so they should shut up” theory seems particularly arrogant, well that’s just because it is. Unless you’ve got a well-organized corps of journalists out to fight such well-organized conceit, who else with any credibility can do it?

Of course there’s always the argument that bloggers can somehow fill the role traditionally occupied by the mainstream media, but that’s only partially true. How many people are seriously going to make a career out of blogging and covering everything from what’s happening at the local city hall to what legislation is pending in Congress? There are some people out there attempting to do just that and some of them do a fine job, to be sure, but there are always questions of bias (for example, name one political blog out there that’s truly neutral). Besides, how many people can make a living out of blogging? If someone is going to pursue such a “citizen journalism” route and sell advertisements, will their revenue stream be strong and diversified enough to tell a major advertiser “no” when pressured to write a certain story or slant things in favor of a certain company?

Bias has always been a problem in the traditional media, of course, but the better journalists I’ve known have always tried to fight such favoritism. Further, the better newspapers I’ve worked for have kept their advertising and editorial departments separate. When I was a reporter and had advertisers call me and try to convince me of the merit of a certain story, I had the authority to refuse and know that the newspaper would back up my decision. That is a luxury that you just don’t have when you rely on just a few advertisers and they become very interested in what news is being distributed to the public.

The answer, I think, is to merge (for want of a better term) what professional journalists do with what bloggers do. Again, there are some publications taking that route but they are running into problems – how can an organization make money by distributing news over the Internet? Is there really enough advertising revenue out there to support a slew of intensely local and national media outlets on the Internet?

How journalism will look in a few years is anyone’s guess. However, I do believe one thing is clear – we need a professional corps of journalists who make a living by nothing but reporting the news and trying to be impartial about it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you thoughts, that there needs to be reporting, that the web cannot at this time replace.

That may not be the case in the future. As for an un-biases blog, I have found this one to be interesting.

Just found your blog from the Bobo files, will try to visit more, as a
fellow Arkie.

PS, Ark. Rifle & Pistol Ass. is meeting Sunday in Jacksonville, info on their web site if of interest.

Patricia Rockwell said...

I agree too. It's terrible how polarized the press has become. If independent newspapers die, I dread what will become of our country. As for bloggers, I think many have good intentions but just not the resources. Most political blogs I visit take a stand right or left, although I will check out the site Anonymous mentions. I too am looking for blogs and newspapers and television channels that are genuinely UNbiased and I just can't find any.

The Natural State Hawg said...

Anonymous -- Always love it when fellow Arkansans drop by and I'll be sure to check out that link.

Ark. Rifle & Pistol Association meeting, huh? I'll check into that -- I used to own a few handguns.

That was until I pawned off my pistols to pay the rent back when I was practicing law.

Ah, those were the days...

Patricia -- It is terrible how polarized things have become. What is stranger, still, is how right-leaning outlets like Fox News get called out for being "biased" by groups like CNN that show clear sympathies to the left.

Back when I was a reporter, I knew I was biased but I fought like hell to not make that part of my reporting. It is very, very easy to show bias in reporting -- just mark the points you like as "most important" and move them to the top of the story. Just declare those issues you don't like as unimportant and don't cover them. Simple, huh?

I do believe newspapers started to have a credibility problem about 20 years ago as they were purchased by corporate interests. If, for example, a Walton family members owns 90 percent of a newspaper, how likely is it that paper will bash Wal-Mart?

What we need -- and what I believe there will always be a market for -- is the independent journalist who is out to report the news and lay out the various sides of a story. How are citizens to stay informed otherwise?

Karen said...

This was an informative post. I hope the local newspapers can survive. Like you said, we need them.

The Natural State Hawg said...

Karen -- Yes, we need them now more than ever, perhaps. Here's an example -- one of my senators referred to protests at town hall meetings as "un-American." She got called on it by the local paper and retracted her statement.

God help us if we allow government officials to openly discourage dissent and encourage all those who think the "correct way" to oppose with differing opinions.

Harrison said...

I think this is the main reason all the Lefty papers are losing money or closing. People vote with their money.

The Natural State Hawg said...

Harrison -- There's certainly some truth to that. Once a publication is viewed as "left" or "right," it loses a considerable amount of credibility. Unfortunately, we do have some journalists running around who have determined that the truth is revealed by how they -- and not the readers -- interpret the facts.

Once people start editorializing rather than reporting, the game is up...

Harrison said...

Just look at why the NYTimes canned Ben Stein.

The Natural State Hawg said...

Harrison -- Sadly, that very type of thing has -- I think -- resulted in some serious questions as to the credibility of newspapers. At one point, the Times went from being the "Old Gray Lady" to a bastion of leftist conceit.

Frankly, what the New York Times is up to figures rarely in my considerations of what's happening to newspapers generally. In my estimation, the papers that do matter to me (The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, the Benton Courier, the Benton County Daily Record, the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, etc.) are the ones that I'll miss should anything happen to them.

In fact, I do believe we'll all miss such local publications if they cease to exist. Who the heck else is going to keep up with what the local city council is up to or what kind of shenanigans are going on in the state Legislature?

Even if some major, national blogs came to replace the print industry, what of Arkansas? This is a small state, after all, and I'm not sure who's going to keep an eye on things around here if we don't have a professional press that makes a living by doing just that.