On the ‘biggest threat to journalism’ today

Ross Barkan’s July 17 opinion piece in the Guardian, The biggest threat to journalism isn't Donald Trump. It's declining revenues, raises some issues for me, some of which I have been kicking around for a while. The first, in particular, is like a blister that won’t heel because I just keep walking on it.

► What is “fake news”? Is it the spread of false stories – whether fabricated by someone in Eastern Europe with a profit motive, or based on unsubstantiated rumors passed by gossipmongers in the U.S. with too much time on their hands? Or is it someone’s (perhaps Barkan’s “orange-haired and shrill, whining” person’s) judgment that the story should not be judged “news” by the media that publish it?

I’ve thought for some time that the answer to anti-media cries of “fake news” should not be answered with demonstrations of verity but with defense of the publisher’s news judgment. When I see such defenses, I cheer. When I see all the effort put into proving the truth of what we publish, I cringe. It just makes matters worse when we miss the point on this. In particular, it makes things worse when our news decisions are unsupportable. This happens more often than I choose to keep track of.

► What is the “news industry,” which Barkan seems to equate with newspapers when citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that “the industry” employed 411,800 people in 2001 but only 173,709 in 2016? Further, how should we be measuring the numbers when so many journalists today are part of the “gig economy” and so little data is reported on the various segments, nooks and crannies of our industry?

These aren’t new questions; they have been debated for nearly a decade. I’ve been unable to locate recent statistics on journalism employment, and even if I could find those numbers, where would freelancers be reflected? Just thinking about how to count, in today’s messed-up journalism world of for-profit and nonprofit media employees and freelancers, gives me a headache.

► Are rural areas and small towns starving for news, as Barkan claims? Further, is a decline in media covering rural issues responsible for fostering a segment of the population that “cannot believe a single story the media reports”? Or, is the widespread distrust and disbelief of news reports caused, at least in part, by an underlying liberal bias in the mainstream media, bolstered by trends toward mixing opinion with “analysis” in articles published in the news pages?

I admit to being an old-time journalist, stuffy and steadfast in my belief that we need to do our best to remain objective and eschew any public expression of support for subjects of the stories we tell or may want to tell in the future. I was trained by stalwarts of newspaper and magazine journalism who taught me these values, and I was employed for decades by a company whose stock in trade was tied up in the need for complete accuracy and objectivity in our published information. That’s my background, and I’m sticking to it.

Now, about Barkan’s premise that media covering rural issues are dying: this isn’t quite true. I remember the time when, throughout the country, small-town local reporters were “neighbors” and the editor-in-chief was “a town fixture.” Recent presentations I attended featuring new small-town editors and reporters lead me to believe that time is not over yet, and in fact is on its way back in many areas of the United States.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, agrees with me on this point, though not without qualification “In some areas there has been a resurgence of local journalism, because there will always be a demand for news of one’s locality, but that hasn’t reached most communities,” he wrote in an email. “Conversely, community journalism remains the strongest part of the traditional news business, partly because its local-news franchise is unchallenged in most places.” It’s part of the future of journalism, whatever that turns out to be.

I don’t quarrel with Barkan’s main premise, that the biggest threat to journalism today is declining revenues. An increasing share of ad revenue is indeed going to Google, Facebook and other online giants, and the need to pay for classified ads is greatly diminished by Craigslist. I agree with him that hope lies in finding an economic model in which journalism works as it’s supposed to, shedding sunlight on the workings of government and telling stories that inform us about things beyond our ken.

So, there’s work to be done, and here’s one place to begin: Think how much good it would do for the profession to have news outlets in far-off places teaming up with independent journalists throughout the country to ensure that editorial directors and their readers, viewers and listeners have a better sense of the mood of the country than they had in the 2016 election.

Maybe, just maybe, it would help turn around the thinking of those who now “only see a live journalist if one swoops in during a presidential election – or one never shows up at all.” Collaboration between media outlets and freelance journalists across the country should be part of the fix for what ails us, whatever that turns out to be.