J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

The Future of Local News Revisted: Josh Breitbart on the Pending Sale of the Inky and DN

Posted by chanders on May 22, 2006

Josh Breitbart has a thought provoking and informative post over at Civil Defense documenting the latest moves in the about-to-be-pending-sale of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. This is something I’ve followed with some interest ever since my attendance at the Philly NORGs conference in March. There’s a lot to digest here, so I thought I would largely leave aside the actual details of the sale (except when relevant to other points) and talk a little bit about some of the ways that I think concerned independent media activists should thinking about the economic, financial, and political changes shaking the news industry.

First, lets look at the big picture. As Josh notes, he’s someone who has "worked to de-professionalize journalism for his entire adult life." The increasing (and increasingly nuanced) attention that long time independent media activists are paying to developments in the mainstream, corporate media world is only surpassed by the increased attention that corporate media powers-that-be are paying to independent media. I talked a lot more about this in the aftermath of the NORG’s meeting, so for now all I’ll add is that there would have been a day when just about anyone who cared about alt. media would have barely mustered a shrug of the shoulders with regard to the pending Knight-Ridder sale. Indeed, there’s still plenty along these lines to go around, as  Rolando de aguiar writes on the Philly IMC site, in reaction to Josh’s post:

"I am very disappointed to see an Indymedia feature offering such a facile treatment of this situation. These two abysmal papers–faces of the same overvalued coin–have for many years been hostile to progressive issues … the idea that Philadelphia’s African American community would be "simply shut out of the world of information" is absurd and offensive; rather than crying about the quality of the potential suitors for these two rags, independent media should see this crisis as an opportunity.

By and large, I agree with the thrust of Josh’s post, but I think Rolando also makes some good points. A couple of specific reactions first, before I get to the punch-line, so to speak. First, with regard to the professionalization of journalism. Josh writes, regarding the Newspaper Guild:

"The Newspaper Guild came into existence at a time when journalism was in ill repute. In the 1930s, the Guild brought a new professionalism to journalism and established a sense of respect for newspapers in the eyes of the general public. They set as their mission "constant honesty in news, editorials, advertising, and business practices; [and to] raise the standards of journalism and ethics of the industry." They won pay raises for reporters who were getting paid less than unionized drivers and printers, giving birth to journalism as the professional occupation we know today.

Readers know that the professionalization of journalism is a particular interest of mine, and I wanted to point out (yet again) the ambiguity of the professionalization project with regard to journalism. There’s no better way to do it than to quote James Carey, who has argued that the professionalization of the reporter, along with fostering a growth of objectivity, also helped to create journalists as a separate class increasingly distanced from, and standing in for, the public at large. In other words, while the growth of objectivity and professionalization may have raised the quality of information received by citizens, it undermined both their trust in journalism and the very fabric of public life that made public deliberation possible in the first place.  I think this is a fundamental insight of the independent media activists, even if they don’t often frame their arguments this way. This isn’t to say that professional journalism is bad, just that its a double-edged sword. Can one witness the truth emerge via a deprofessionalized conversation? What about the quality of information? There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but they’re worth asking, at least.

My second and broader thought has to do with Josh’s recommendations. This is related to Rolando’s point that media activists should see the Inky’s sale as an opportunity, not a disaster. Josh points readers in several direction if they hope to comment on the pending McClatchy sale: they can submit comments via 2papertown.com. There’s no reason not to make this kind of noise, but I think its a bit late. Not just with regard to the McClatchy sale, but by and large, with the entire state of the American newspaper industry. Are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic here?  Michael Shapiro has an amazing story in the March/April CJR about the rise and fall of the Inquirer which can stand in for a much larger collapse of the newspaper business under the weight of its own conservatism (in both senses of the word) and greed. In other words, does it really matter much who buys the Inquirer and Daily News? There’s no easy way to answer the question, "is journalism possible under capitalism?" but an easier question to ask is, "is journalism possible under the current stage of corporate, investor driven, globalized capitalism?" Jeff Jarvis says yes, and thinks all the talk about evil corporate journalism is bullshit. I say that I’m not so sure.

I’ll take off my ill-fitting Marxist hat for now; it doesn’t really fit me very well, anyway. But I’ll just say this: we are in a moment of opportunity, no matter who buys the decaying remains of the Knight-Ridder empire. This isn’t to say that we can’t try to make the best out of a bad situation, and that the folks in Philly don’t deserve the best, most progressive, most racially forward-looking news they can get. But I don’t know if they they’ll get it from Brian Tierney, or Yucaipa, or Mort Zuckerman, for that matter. Something new is being born in the journalism world that we can see the vague outlines of but can’t quite recognize, exactly. Its not exactly the world that either old-style journalists or their alt. media antagonists expect, I don’t think. But its coming.

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