Will Call: A few words in defense of journalism
It may not be the best time in history to be settling into a career in journalism.
Blanket distrust of the media is in vogue, jobs are scarce and I get the feeling many people have only the vaguest understanding of how the industry works. Of course, we’re usually the ones to provide a glimpse behind the curtain when the public needs a primer, so perhaps it’s worth doing that for ourselves.
As an on-the-job trained reporter for a small town newspaper, I can’t claim to know what the folks at CNN or Fox News are thinking. Nevertheless, many of the criticisms I see aimed at the media seem more applicable to a handful of broadcast companies than journalism in general.
For instance, I’m getting pretty used to social media posts about how “the mainstream media” is neglecting an important topic. When I point out that the The New York Times, NPR or the paper for the region in question has had numerous stories on the subject, I’m usually told that that’s not the media they’re talking about. Bonus points go to the articles that actually use tweets from reporters to try to show what’s being neglected. Even a tiny operation like KDNK sent a reporter to Standing Rock, while thousands of people shared a mislabeled photo of Woodstock on Facebook to illustrate what was being hidden from us.
I’m not saying the national media hasn’t dropped the ball. The rise of the Internet and 24 hour news has left many outlets in a race to the bottom in terms of quality and relevance. You can complain all you want about clickbait and cat pictures, but it’s viewership that drives it.
I can’t tell you how many times I spent days of research and interviews on a story designed to uplift or inform, only to glean a couple hundred page views at best. Meanwhile, an hour’s write up on a car accident or arrest is likely to generate several thousand views and several comments about how we should spend more time focusing on the positive.
It’s discouraging, though somewhat offset by the in-person positive feedback that comes from working in a small town. In fact, I think small newspapers have a number of advantages over our larger cousins. While the Internet can tell you a lot about what’s happening in large markets, I have trouble imagining a blogger attending town council meetings week after week.
There are disadvantages as well, of course. We have the budget for one full-time editor and a couple of stringers to cover two or three sports at five or six different high schools. I’m not sure if folks are aware of that, because even as Josh manages to juggle several things at once, he catches almost constant flack from people about whatever he’s not immediately covering, but gets few offers to send him score updates. If we don’t have the news up as soon as it happens, it might be because we’re obliged to do more research than the grapevine or simply because nobody thought to tip us off.
The economy of scale helps somewhat in the face of declining individual staff sizes, which may be why media ownership has become more concentrated of late. Luckily, though a handful of corporations wield tremendous power through their various holdings, their message isn’t always consistent and there are plenty of other players. Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper company by daily distribution, doesn’t even make the Big Six — Comcast, Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, Viacom and CBS. Digital First Media, which owns the Denver Post, and Swift Communications, which owns the Post Independent, Aspen Times and several other Western Slope papers, are comparative blips on the radar.
Many of the bigger outlets have a prominent slant that tends to reinforce the beliefs of their readers or viewers, but smaller ones often don’t have that luxury. Given that we get about equal criticism for being too liberal and too conservative, I like to think we’re riding that line pretty well.
The accusations of timidity and sensationalism are also about split, though the latter often come with the rather confusing assertion that we’re trying to “sell papers.” It’s probably worth a reminder that our free paper is supported by advertisers, who if anything would likely prefer we not print controversial content. As such, when it does appear, it’s generally because we believe it’s something the community needs to know.
I have written about folks I know and like under embarrassing or downright tragic circumstances, and I can assure you it’s not something I take lightly. I’ve certainly taken some critiques to heart and will likely do so in the future. For each of those, though, there are dozens of comments that appear to be responding to the headline only, with no attention to the actual content of the piece.
While choosing which outlets you follow is important, being a crafty consumer is far more so. Fake news is a prominent issue of late, but context means a lot even with reputable sources. I’ve managed to embarrass myself by overlooking something as simple as the publication date, which might have told me that a given celebrity actually died five years ago. Look for indications that something is an opinion piece or satire. If it’s on our website and says it’s from the Associated Press, it’s not actually one of our reporters doing the coverage.
The bottom line is, try to remember that journalists are people trying to do their job to the best of our abilities. If you wouldn’t assume malice when something seemed off in another industry, why jump to that conclusion with us? Instead, give us a chance to explain. It’s kinda what we do.
Will Grandbois is glad to have that out of his system so his final column next week can be more sentimental. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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