Talk about newspapers these days and people’s eyes seem to glaze over. Papers belong to the era of one’s grandfather, a bygone age when trees were felled, wood smashed into paper pulp and printed to carry day-old news. They are quaint, and their total extinction forestalled only through the bewildering, continued existence of the likes of the New York Times, the WSJ, The Guardian, Le Monde and all those venerable broadsheets which still shape national policies the world over.
In my incarnation as a journalist, I mostly describe myself as a newspaperman (new media man/person doesn’t sound right). But why would I attribute myself as being part of an archaic order that is being gradually hacked to oblivion by television and the internet? Back in 2007, when I was graduating from college in Texas, the national consensus of journalism was that it was dead as we knew it — in the form of newspapers and magazines anyway. Pundits proclaimed the rise of the citizen journalist, the neighborhood scribe who stalked the streets, taking to online forums to report on what he or she saw, replacing traditional reporting, and triggering the demise of the old order. These scribes, the pundits said, would give rise to Social Journalism — a transparent and community driven form of news gathering whose results would be bared online. And here I was with my newly minted BA in English Lit and Mass Comm facing a potential hostile population of one billion “citizen” journalists – the odds and economics of which sounded untenable and outright insane.
But what the pundits, with their prognostications failed to understand was that journalism is a trained profession, much like how lawyers are trained, albeit without the longevity of law school. Imagine if suddenly one day, the populace declared lawyers were obsolete, and proclaimed the rise of the citizen-lawyer? Well, we’ve all heard the one about the man who acted as his own counsel…
Print journalism is inherently a white collar profession, with an intricate, mental tool-set, but which over the last 25 years has been arguably eroded through the interference of media barons, incompetent publishers, corporate advertising, and quisling, piss-poor editorialists and pressure to “sex up” the news. At its core, print journalism seeks only to illuminate, explain and inform, at the cost of near anonymity. Nobody every really became famous merely working in papers, except for maybe Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and others whose names escape me… I rest my case. But mostly the work is intended to help create a more informed public and an electorate. The same can be achieved in new media, but newspapers possess an undeniable legitimacy. When Edward Snowden decided to leak the NSA files to the world, for example, there is a reason why he chose newspapers to leak to and not to TV news or online outlets.
We convince ourselves that free news is good even if it happens to be inferior because all we need are the basic facts. A case in the point is the BBC which partly uses a “robot,” an advanced algorithm to edit and format some of its stories. Which seems to explain many of the articles have incomplete or replicated facts. Although the system has improved, there was a time when stories fail to ask and answer the most basic of questions. And if we can’t get our news for free, we fall back on online news outlets with grandiose titles and strange urls, and social media, that great echo chamber. The end result is an entire generation of people who cannot tell the difference between reporting and propaganda, op-ed and news pieces, fact and hyperbole, press and prostitution.
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