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.