Is Journalism Doomed?

I was on the phone recently with an upset journalism friend.

There was a long sigh before they told me how they had an idea for a fantastic investigative story that was very much in the public interest.

The story was pitched — but they were told by editors the newsroom didn’t have the resources to free the person up for the two or three days it would take to do the story — and then the cost of having it lawyered.

So, the story was never told. It likely never will be.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this tale. I hear it all the time from friends and former colleagues in the media.

 

 

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RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Later that week, I got another call from a friend who had been laid off from Bell Media. They weren’t alone.

In total, 380 jobs gone in the same month the media giant announced quarterly adjusted profits of $183-million (that’s up $1-million from the same quarter last year).

The majority of those jobs are in editorial and production.

Here’s the part that surprises me: the story attracted very little national media attention in Canada — in fact, it was easily drowned out in the newscasts by Charlie Sheen’s health problems.

It’s quite something when the media doesn’t really show much interest in the media being cut. But, it’s not surprising. Society has become desensitized to cutbacks in the media. After all, it’s been one round of cuts after another in the global media for 25 years — intensifying in recent years and taking quite a toll on the journalism profession.

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A recent journalism census by the American Society of Newsroom Editors reported a double-digit (10%) decrease in U.S. journalists last year alone.

As Ken Doctor of Newsonomics points out, the number of professional journalists in the U.S. today is about one-half of what it was 25 years ago.

It’s a global trend, undoubtedly.

Even the award-winning Boston Globe, the centrepiece of the critically-acclaimed movie “Spotlight” — which features and celebrates the impact courageous investigative journalism can do in affecting change in society — has been hit by deep cuts.

No one is immune.

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Why this is happening is a complex cocktail of socio-economic trends that’s the topic for another blog for another time.

But, in a nutshell, we’re an attention-deficit society that’s more interested in Justin Bieber’s latest antics than we are the Middle East. For the most part, we are politically apathetic and pathetically unsophisticated in our news consumption as a society.

We have the Internet, Netflix, iPods, smartphones and social media. In other words, competition. That stuff is fun. News is so serious and depressing, right? So, as these trends evolved, viewership, readership, and listenership of traditional media declined. Fewer consumers means charging less for advertising. Less money means spending cuts. And, cuts in media always hits journalism the hardest historically. Now, factor in something journalist John-Erik Koslosky pointed out to me (on Facebook ironically) — that the steep decline in working journalists happened just as the global economic crisis hit in and around 2007 (see chart below). And, at the same point, he states, the iPhone gained mass appeal and helped in pushing people to the digital world.

This is all an extremely simplified explanation — but I’m sure you get the point. News is like broccoli. It’s nutritious. It’s good for you. We need it. Some people absolutely love it. However, put a bowl of ice cream on the table and 95% of people will push the broccoli aside for the ice cream.

We are now to the point where even if media conglomerates figure out a winning formula for making money (see Bell Media), they’d rather not re-invest that profit back into journalism — because — no one is clamouring for it anymore.

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Unless you work directly in the media, have a family member in the media — or deal with journalists frequently — you probably think these cuts have no impact on you or your life. Well, you could not be more wrong.

We are a lesser society with fewer professional journalists.

We are a far weaker democracy.

And, not only do we have fewer journalists — consider the impact on those who live to survive another day. Those journalists are being asked to do more with less — a lot more. They’re doing more stories each day and that means less time for research and sourcing. They’re also having to Tweet, blog and post to Facebook. Print reporters have to take care of their own photography in many cases, take video, etc. While they’re doing all this, they’re not 100% focusing on their journalism which involves both listening and asking tough questions. Whether they want to admit it or not, it’s impacting the quality of work.

But the broader issue is not about individual jobs.

There is a ‘greater good’ situation at play here.

Journalism plays a major watchdog role in keeping honest the lawmakers, corporations, public institutions and leaders.

Reporters act as a check and balance in a healthy democracy. They ensure that people who are, or can be, corrupted by power — are held to account.

For some examples of the incredible impact of journalism on our society, here’s a list of the Pulitzer Prize winners for investigative journalism over the years — and the Canadian Michener Award winners.

“Far from considering journalists to be irritating pains in the neck — though I’ve known a few who qualified — I believe them to be indispensable to our democracy.” ~Lee Hamilton, Former U.S. Congressman

When you look at the work these people are doing, it becomes very clear that this is a profession we need to protect at all costs.

They are changing lives and saving lives (quite literally). Hell, we should be talking about growing journalism — yet here we are with 50% fewer today — and more disappearing by the week around the globe.

That’s a lot of watchdogs we no longer have protecting our interests.

And, as surviving journalism weakens, political, institutional and corporate corruption becomes easier. The risk to those who want to cheat, steal and lie decreases exponentially. Society as a whole will suffer.

What we appear to be seeing is an epidemic of sorts. A societal illness.

As Malcolm Gladwell (a journalist by trade) points out, we see situations all the time where trends hit a tipping point and there is no going back.

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.”

So, the question is: have we hit that ‘magic moment’ — that tipping point when it comes to journalism. Has the critical mass of people who are uninterested in quality news hit such point that there’s no going back?

There are some troubling indicators beyond the job statistics. For example, many college journalism programs around the world have completely folded in recent years. You can’t blame them. They’re reacting to the fact there are fewer journalism jobs at the local and regional levels (where most entry level journalists get their start). However, when educational institutions start closing journalism programs, they are, in effect, saying there is no future in this profession. Compounding the problem are the annual rankings of the worst professions — they almost always list journalism as one of the worst for young people to consider. And, anecdotally, I’m seeing a trend in recent years of many accomplished journalists leaving the profession between the ages of 40-45, either by choice or by layoff. That experience and that skill in the newsroom is being lost at the apex of a journalism career. These are the people who know the industry the best and they’re getting out while they can — they are the canary in the coal mines, so to speak.

Despite all of these trends, I don’t think journalism has crossed the tipping point yet. But, we’re headed that way — and we better do something about it before it’s too late.

Let me be clear — I don’t have the answers. I only have the questions. But, I know this much — we have a huge problem — and that seems to be more than most people know these days.

And, as we all know, admitting we have a problem is half the battle.deadly-fluff-media-cartoonNow, I know some will point to the growing number of bloggers, “citizen journalists” — and the growth of social media — and say journalism is alive and well — and never been better.

I don’t want to take away from that because I believe the more people acting as ‘watchdogs’, the better our society can be.

Social media and blogs — and the people who occupy those spaces are crucial to our checks and balances. But, it’s not ‘journalism’.

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Journalism, as I understand it by definition, is the activity of professionally researching, sourcing, writing and delivering the news.

It’s a profession. People are educated, trained and paid.

So, I cringe when I hear a phrase like “citizen journalism”.

Journalism is a profession.

Would you hire a “citizen surgeon” to check your prostate?

Would you hire a “citizen furnace technician”?

So, why are we demeaning a profession like journalism in such a manner?

Now, being a journalist doesn’t mean working only for a newspaper, television station or radio station. Those are merely vehicles for information delivery.  The Internet is a vehicle for information delivery. Newspapers are vehicles for information delivery. The vehicle is useless without the gasoline. And, the journalism is truly the fuel that drives change in society.

Content is still king in journalism.

We have to stop focusing on the vehicles.

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I think about an outlet like Vice, which is doing some groundbreaking work in journalism. It is, indeed, digital. It’s not ‘traditional’ media in its delivery and that’s one of the reasons it’s having success. But, keep this in mind — many of the people at Vice are professional journalists. They are resourced and they are paid to do a job. They may take a different approach to stories — but that’s an issue of style.

I believe the growth and evolution of one vehicle does not diminish the need of another. Traditional media and professional journalists are still needed — in fact — one could argue they are more needed now than ever. Global economic issues, historic environmental problems, paralyzing security issues and the rise of the military state.

And if you think it’s bad in large centres and at major media outlets, the situation in smaller and medium-sized communities is disastrous…

Local NewsWhile big network and big city journalism cutbacks make the headlines, it’s rare for it to garner much attention in small and medium sized communities outside their own community. Yet, on a per capita basis, I would hazard a guess the reductions are hitting those areas much harder than larger centres. In a culture where media companies own lots of assets in large and small centres — when they have to balance the books, they often cut the regions disproportionately.

Although declining — larger centres still have considerably more resources than local news. They also have alternative media for consumers in bigger cities — to get their news. They have specialized publications and hyper-local news sources — and they have bloggers/online-only media like Vice that have resources, experience and the expertise to focus on specific issues. Smaller communities don’t have that.

In small and even medium-sized communities, there’s often only one newspaper, one TV station and privately-owned radio stations that focus more on music, entertainment, contests and pop culture rather than hard-hitting news and information. They are doing considerably more with considerably less — and that means not a lot of time for hard-hitting investigative journalism.

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Again, I don’t purport to have the answers — but I know this: nothing is going to change until we admit we have a REAL problem regarding the huge decline in professional journalists worldwide.

Right now, other than the occasional news story itemizing the latest round of cuts, there’s been no discussion at a broader level — no serious discussion amongst people other than journalists talking at journalism conferences.

I know this much — if this were any other sector facing this level of decimation (auto, aerospace, forestry, farming, mining, etc), there would be commissions, inquiries and politicians leading the charge to save the day. But, it seems not when it comes to journalism. This issue needs some high-profile champions. Where’s George Clooney when you need him?

But, we can’t really blame the politicians. You see, they respond to what voters are saying at the doorsteps — what voters are calling and emailing them to talk about. And, clearly, no one is talking about this issue. Yet, the same people call newsrooms ranting and raving, asking why isn’t anyone holding this politician or that corporation to account — who is asking the tough questions, they want to know.

The public is ignorant to this crisis and they need to wake up.

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Normally, I’d say the way to wake up the public is with the media. However, ironically, the media — the very journalists affected by this issue — don’t seem to want to talk about it outside of professional conferences and bitching about it at the pub.

I know media doesn’t like talking about itself (journalism rule: never become the story) — but this is a crucial issue. I also know the media is very competitive, so when a competitor cuts jobs, there often isn’t much sympathy. But, that has to change. Journalists truly need to start viewing themselves as one community because they’re all under attack. The fact is this needs to become a public issue before it’s too late. You can’t blame politicians or the public for not doing anything — if the very people charged with informing the public on important issues isn’t doing it.

Journalists should also give some real thought to starting up a professional accreditation process. The lines are becoming blurred and professional journalists who are educated, trained and paid as full time journalists should be accredited. It’s a great way to put a spotlight on the professionalism associated with what you do. It becomes a way to differentiate yourselves from the bloggers and self-appointed ‘citizen journalists’. Don’t assume the public knows the difference. It doesn’t.

Again, none of us have the answer….but we won’t ever get it unless we start asking bigger questions instead of just focusing on jobs. The narrative is bigger and broader. The narrative is about checks and balances and keeping corporations and governments accountable. The journalism associations around the world need to come together as one unified voice and develop a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the public. It’s a campaign like any other. And, it won’t be easy. But, if journalism is something we value, there’s always a way. My biggest fear is that the journalism community is sitting back with all this happening — and doing nothing — hoping someone else will magically fix it.

Do nothing and the tipping point is coming — and when it hits, get used to Charlie Sheen leading your nightly newscast…..Hell, at this rate, he may be anchoring it soon enough.

UPDATE AUGUST 2016:

Since this post was originally written, the cuts in journalism continue. Comedian John Oliver covered the issue brilliantly on his program. Definitely worth watching:

 


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