Thursday, December 18, 2008

Do We Need So Many Reporters?

An article in the NYT caught my eye: fewer reporters covering Washington as papers either cut or entirely close their Washington bureaus.

But one line in particular got my brain pumping: "Those that remain have cut back drastically on Washington coverage, eliminating hundreds of journalists' jobs at a time when the federal government - and journalistic oversight of it - matters more than ever."

This is where I get myself into trouble. This is where I commit heresy, but I'm going to do it anyway. 

I have to question the part where the reporter writes "and journalistic oversight of it - matters more than ever". First of all, doesn't it always matter? Didn't it matter more than ever when the Bush administration was making the case to go to war, one of the most significant decisions a president can make? And where was the NYT? They took a pass, nee, they encouraged it with Thomas Friedman and Judy Miller getting suckered like 1st year journalism students who find out later the police chief or the mayor lied to them in an interview. Meanwhile, they ignored the work of Knight-Ridder reporters who didn't buy the weapons of mass destruction line. 

Here's my second beef, which is much more academic: when our press has failed us in so many ways, and recently too - I'm not just talking about the failure to report the Great Migration in 20's and 30's or the reticence of American journalists to cover what was going on in concentration camps - isn't that the time to say, we made a mistake and we need to make some changes? How about addressing the lack of trust of the press? How about cultivating a sense of information stewardship on the part of your audience, who probably know things that are important? 

Or how about acknowledging that the technology doesn't necessarily mean you need as many reporters? I don't have any hard evidence to support this, but my hypothesis is that one of the reasons we may be seeing a decline in reporting is that the old dogs haven't learned any new tricks, or are struggling to learn them. That's probably the fault of management, who are cutting everything to save a few bucks for their shareholders. 

Some news organizations are developing very sophisticated databases to help them sort information better - in the way the microchip revolutionized investigate reporting, so are computer programmers who come up with the code to sift and mine and analyze. True, you still need someone to go out and do the shoe leather work. Or you could post your data graphically on the web and ask your audience to contribute video, pictures, some text - there are alternatives to the traditional reporting of the past thanks to the World Wide Grid. 

Here's what a boils down to: journalism has attracted a lot of wanna be writers. Not all, but it's there. But because the medium has shifted, the need for the narrative may be less relevant. I'm not saying it will go away - if anything, I love it when the NYT posts audio slideshows of photojournalism. That's a narrative. And the traditional tools to create it - pen, paper, typewriter- have now now expanded to Flash, ProTools, Final Cut. 

So we have a crisis going on in the U.S. Several even. 2 wars, a financial meltdown, corporate corruption. But I would ask, is the problem that we don't have enough information, or is the problem that we, the people, have stopped trusting the entities who deliver it? 

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