Testimony on the State of the Media

In a recent post you might remember me pointing to the words of The Wire creator and former Baltimore journalist David Simon as he was interviewed on Bill Moyer’s program.  You might also remember that I’m a huge, let’s be honest, FAN, of Simon as I find the Wire to be one imperfect and completely accurate mirror of how our society and our world functions.

So it might come as a surprise and certainly ironic when I tell you I hated David Simon’s testimony before US Congress during the recent session on the state of the media industry. Hmm, saying I hated it is kind of silly, the basic fact is that based on Simon’s words before congress, I don’t agree and would argue some of his statements/facts.

I actually plan to develop my response further, possibly putting it out as a video entry, but for now I wanted to begin to break-down what problem I have with Simon’s words and to properly lay out my own responses.

So here’s about the moment where one of my hero’s of television writing lost me:

High end journalism is dying in America, and unless a new economic model is achieved it will not be reborn on the Web, or anywhere else. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and clearly it is the information delivery system of our future. But thus far it does not deliver much first generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.

That high end journalism is dying, no one can argue. At least when it comes to the kind of high end journalism that was carried out by investigative reporters who were paid a professional wage and kept on staff at respected newspapers.

First generation reporting. Now here it is my turn to testify. If by first generation reporting, we mean first hand gathering of facts and persuit of information on a topic or theme, then we have lots of it on the internet. YES, we do. I can generate a list right now, but I’d rather continue with this statement.  The type of first generation reporting delivered by the internet is not being produced by the same people who used to; the big name newspaper, the media corporation, the full time on staff journalist; these are not necessarily the producers anymore.  The producers of today’s internet first-generation reporting, you’ve probably never heard of. It isn’t necessarily your fault, as their content is buried in the search engine among the mountains of other people and information out there. These producers are often, though not always, part-timers, splitting the time they take for content creation and investigation, with side jobs that help fund their journalism.  These producers aren’t from the traditional schools and institutions of journalism; they may have never set foot in the halls of a prestigous newspaper. They may not have even majored in journalism at university.  It is even possible that they are the type of writers that don’t capitalize or use punctuation as perfectly as their journalistic ancestors.

But there commitment can be just as great, no, even greater then that of those who once had cushy work contracts and health insurance plans.  Their passion for seeking the truth and being crtical of power is as strong as any journalists that came before them.  Again, that passion, it could be argued, probably has to be stronger as there is no promise of a paycheck or the glory that traditional journalists could count on.

But again, you wouldn’t have heard about them.  They are in Baghdad, in Nairobi, in Moscow and beyond. They may not do things in the style or method you see as “best practices for journalism” but their goal is the same. Their method for delivery is the internet, and they’re out there working as you read this.

Now the fact that you’re unlikely to have heard from them, is one of many that truely does warrant concern. Its not that good journalism can’t come from independent net based journalists, the problem is that the world doesn’t value this work in the right way. It doesn’t get funded. It doesn’t get recognized. It doesn’t have the institutional support and respect that the investigative reporters of the old days had. That is more than sad, it is a matter of concern that should indeed be remedied.

But to say the internet- “leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth.”, that is simply your opinion and clearly your limited exposure to all that is going on via the internet. Not to say you shouldn’t be crticial of what is happening, and surely recommend ways to preserve traditional reporting- go for it.  But don’t toss everything we the journalists of the internet are doing under the bus, as there is definitely more going on here than you realize.

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2 thoughts on “Testimony on the State of the Media

  • May 15, 2009 at 1:54 am
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    There was a more insidious item that he and some of the others on the panel were pushing for. And that was for congress to pass anti-trust protection legislation to allow for newspaper companies to collude to come up with a new business model.

    While it makes sense on one level for those who publish and produce first generation reporting to do something to figure out how they can earn a living wage as they do this vital work, there is a very scary side to that. Essentially what a trust of newspaper companies under protection of the US gov’t — & here we are talking about some of the biggest media conglomerates in the USA and abroad — will do is to create a business model that earns their keep while codifying into business practice & quite possibly law protection from the diverse and challenging voices that are not on their payroll.

    While in the USA this won’t ostensibly criminalize the independent journalist, it will likely lock them out of the level of resources, credentialing, and income that would allow them to report on the professional level. Without that living wage, burnout becomes easy and the immediacy of reporting can be retardedby a reporter’s need for sustaining activities.

    I found that part a lot scarier than Simon’s testimony on the failings of web journalism. Anti-trust protection will codify the failure of web journalism.

    That said, Mr. Simon and most of the other on the panel did call for an important change in journalism. There is a bill before the Senate now to let newspapers become non-profit entities. I don’t know to what level this includes more than the print daily. Nevertheless, corporatism has killed the kind of journalism needed to sustain a healthy democracy. By taking the profit motive and unsustainable growth out of news publishing, we get more accountability to the readers and not to the stockholders.

    With legislation before the US Congress as well as corporate lobbying pressure, now is an important time to keep abreast of what is happening in the seats of power in regards to journalism, citizen, indy, professional, corporate or otherwise.

    • May 17, 2009 at 10:28 pm
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      Hi Mike. Indeed the anti-trust leg is worrying. If I ever do a followup to this post.. Ill get into what youre referring to.. though your comments alone cover the gist of that…

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