The dreadful, ever-earnest Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson is the latest pundit to lament the death of the newspaper.
I’ve written in the past that I think newspapers do serve a useful purpose, and I do think we’ll genuinely be worse off when the last newspaperman takes his last ink-lunged breath of life.
But Gerson makes a number of the same mistakes these broadly written old media vs. new media missives always seem to make. Most notably, he lumps all new media into one category and all old media into another. There are great newspapers. And there are really awful newspapers. There are great web-only, hard news publications, and there are terrible, gossipy poorly-sourced ones. Some, like Huffington Post, manage to be both. There are blogs that do actual reporting and break stories (ahem), and blogs that reiterate talking points from the RNC and DNC.
But I can’t let this passage go without comment:
And the whole system is based on a kind of intellectual theft. Internet aggregators (who link to news they don’t produce) and bloggers would have little to collect or comment upon without the costly enterprise of newsgathering and investigative reporting. The old-media dinosaurs remain the basis for the entire media food chain. But newspapers are expected to provide their content free on the Internet. A recent poll found that 80 percent of Americans refuse to pay for Internet content. There is no economic model that will allow newspapers to keep producing content they don’t charge for, while Internet sites repackage and sell content they don’t pay to produce.
I dislike media bias as much as the next conservative. But I don’t believe that journalistic objectivity is a fraud. I was a journalist for a time, at a once-great, now-diminished newsmagazine. I’ve seen good men and women work according to a set of professional standards I respect — standards that serve the public. Professional journalism is not like the buggy-whip industry, outdated by economic progress, to be mourned but not missed. This profession has a social value that is currently not reflected in its market value.
In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.
Take note, Gerson: That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.
I believe I’ve told this story before, but the New York Times indirectly reported on the Cory Maye case a few years before I did. Longtime crime reporter Fox Butterfield was in Prentiss, Mississippi to write about how the drug trade was devastating the rural South. He referenced Maye’s case on the front page, but because he’d already committed to the conceptual outline of his story (drugs are bad, and the government isn’t doing enough to fight them), it didn’t occur him to wonder why a man with no criminal record and no significant amount of drugs in his home would intentionally kill a police officer. Butterfield admitted as much to me when I spoke to him over the phone. The same can be said of the initial coverage of Maye’s case by Mississippi media. No one dug a little. No one went beyond interviewing the police and Maye’s attorney. It took a libertarian policy analyst in Washington looking at the case from a different perspective–one much more skeptical of law enforcement–to see the story, here.
You don’t need a ton of money to do investigative journalism. Nor is journalism necessarily tainted when its done with an agenda. In fact, some of the best investigative reporting has historically and still comes from the likes of Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and Harper’s. More recently, on the web at places like Talking Points Memo or the Center for Independent media sites. Tim Carney has done great work exposing corporate rent seeking and corruption in Washington over at the Examiner. These are all publications that most certainly have a perspective. Accuracy and fairness are what’s important. The idea that anyone can approach a beat or a story with a detached, sterile objectivity is a farce.
Newspapers are still important. But it’s ridiculous to suggest that only newspapers and their pretense of objectivity can do effective or important investigative journalism. Frankly, what investigative journalism needs is more people who haven’t spent 10 years in a newsroom getting too familiar with government sources, growing too wedded to the idea of pure objectivity, and too hamstrung by the way things have always been done.
Oh, and once the traditional media stops running stories broken by bloggers and web publications without giving them proper credit, we can entertain Gerson’s complaint that blogs are stealing content from newspapers and “repackaging” it for profit.