JUNE/JULY/AUGUST 2009 – NO. 34
In Memory of Ink and Journalism
Make no mistake: I love newspapers. In my first career, I worked at three different daily newspapers. Two of them are still around, but the third, The Nashville Banner, was a feisty afternoon offering that could not survive the public's desire for morning news.
I came of age during Watergate, and I learned then (as I still believe) that good journalism could change things. I devoured newspapers in the college library. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and all the local papers.
Even after I'd left newspapers behind, my subsequent careers – press secretary for a politician, public relations firm owner – have been closely tied to newspapers and journalism. News was the way to understand how things are supposed to work, and what happens when they don't. News was the way to tell the story of our lives, or the "first rough draft of history," as an old editor once said.
Now, the papers themselves are the news, as technology and a sour economy have dropped newspapers to their knees. Newspapers across the country are moving entirely online, reducing home delivery, or simply turning off the lights. Experienced, knowledgeable reporters are being let go. Short-staffed newsrooms are struggling to tell the story of our city and its citizens in shrinking papers.
New experiments with journalism models are popping up. Laid-off reporters are forming electronic news outlets that are topic-oriented and subscription-based. (One of the many ironies of the current situation is that reporters, who once took great pride in not understanding how their newspaper made money, are now becoming self-employed and much more aware of the economics of journalism.)
While we're all adapting – and quickly – to reading in different ways and in different formats, what I am most fearful of losing is good journalism. We need the checks and balances of an objective Fourth Estate. A healthy democracy needs a cadre of experienced, objective reporters committed to reporting the details of government, business, the courts, and everyday American life, without prejudice or bias.
Here in my own town, Nashville, we probably have more "news" outlets than ever before. But, if I had to guess, the total number of working journalists today doesn't come close to the numbers even five years ago. And, even in our town, that's not enough to cover the hundreds of stories that happen here every day.
Author and media watcher Clay Shirky argues: "Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism."
Shirky may be right. The threat to our democracy isn't the death of newspapers; it's the dearth of journalists.
I'm growing accustomed to reading my news from a laptop, desktop and phone screen. I sometimes miss the ink stains, but I miss the daily myriad stories of a community at work and play even more.
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