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Newspapers: the dinosaur of journalism and the fossil fuel for mass media

Aug 12, 2016

Why journalism? Or more precisely, why newspapers?

It’s a question I hear a lot. And it’s usually followed by questions like: “Don’t you know they’re a dying breed?” “Do you not enjoy job security?” And my personal favorite, “Aren’t newspapers going the way of the dinosaur?”

The questions are all fired off in rapid succession, without a moment for me to respond.

So here it is: I do it for you.

If you look at other media outlets, what are they covering? The presidential election, ISIS, the Olympics and a “Criminal Minds” actor being suspended from set; this was Thursday’s headline news. And while that is important to cover (the “Criminal Minds” one is questionable), so is local government. I whole-heartily believe that democracy begins from the ground up and whom else do you see at every city and county government or school board meeting? Us. Newspaper journalists.

On Sunday, John Oliver took 20 minutes to bring his dry British humor and quick wit to the topic of journalism, specifically the decline of newspapers during his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

“Journalists, the heroes we root for in movies like ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ and most recently, ‘Spotlight,’” begins Oliver before sweeping to a clip of last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture.

Oliver relents that one of the things that made “Spotlight” so impactful was “the knowledge the newspaper industry today is in big trouble.”

Across the country, newspapers have been downsizing and closing. One of the papers I use to work at recently went through another round of layoffs.

But why is this troubling for the average citizen? You didn’t choose to work in this “dinosaur” field. And besides, many get their news nowadays on Facebook, Twitter or other online sources like the Huffington Post or Breibart News at the other end of the spectrum.

Well, as Oliver so keenly puts it, those outlets often times just “repackage” news reported first by newspapers. Think back to the last evening news segment you watched. How often did a story they were reporting begin with “according to the (insert name of print news organization)”?

“It’s pretty obvious, without newspapers to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” Oliver quips.

Oliver even points out that his show, which is categorized as political satire, often relies heavily on the work of newspaper reporters.

Between 2003 and 2014, a study of over 200 newspapers by the Pew Research Center showed that the number of state-house reporters declined by 35 percent. Not only that, but reporters who did not jump ship or were thrown off to try and keep the paper afloat, now have requirements to increase online traffic by interfacing with readers through blog posts, commenting on posts and tweeting; all of that while still doing their actual job.

Cuts like this is rather terrifying. David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun spoke during a Senate hearing in 2009 regarding the future of journalism and newspapers. During his remarks Simon said, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning meeting is the day I will be confident that we will have reached some sort of equilibrium.”

“There’s no glory in that kind of journalism, but that is the bedrock of what keeps… God, the next 10-15 years in this country is going to be a Halcyon error for state and local political corruption. It’s going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician,” he said.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an us versus them reporting war. Although, if it were, I would blindly put my money on any print journalist, we’re kind of a gnarly breed.

But Simon is right. There is no glory in covering a zoning committee or a city council meeting. And I know those aren’t the most fun story to read, but this is in essence the job of a journalist – the fourth estate. We are the watchdogs of government. Our job is to make sure the populous knows that their elected officials are doing the job they were elected to do. Or that they’re not doing their job and do not have the well being of their constituents at heart.

Print journalists do the legwork. We do the research. We ask the hard questions and are always working for you. As Oliver puts it, “the media is a food chain that would fall apart without local newspapers.”

But here’s the thing, you’re not going to read an article in the newspaper (besides an opinion piece like this) about what journalists do, why our work is important and what it means for the country when our ability to report well is diminished by papers closing or being short staffed or forced to spend our time writing blog posts instead of focusing on a new story. As my publisher is always telling me, we don’t do a very good job of promoting ourselves. That’s because we’re taught not to interject ourselves into the story.

That’s why if you have 20 minutes, take a gander at Oliver’s segment simply titled “Journalism.” Because the man hits it on the nose when he says, “Sooner or later we are either going to have to pay for journalism or we are all going to pay for it.”

 

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