Does journalism still matter in the digital age?
I met my first citizen journalist 32 years ago. You might even call her an
early blogger. Ollie Hoyes from Olyphant, Penn., wrote the "Mid Valley Medley," a free-flowing column for her local weekly newspaper. When I arrived at the paper in the autumn of 1976,
she'd already logged 20 years recording births, deaths, visits from relatives, church picnics, bad behavior, downed street signs, weather calamities, lost pets and sightings of local celebrities,
such as the police chief, doctor, tax collector. (Now that is hyperlocal content.) Hoyes told me she assembled a little bit each day, starting on a Tuesday and handing in finished copy the
Most of the staff at the two weekly newspapers I headed up - The Carbondale Miner and The Mid Valley Gazette - were citizen journalists. There was Ralph Grecco, sports editor and full-time prison guard at Farview, an institution for the criminally insane; Harry Trotter, who contributed a column on horse racing but was also a "retired" businessman who ran a small betting operation; Rick Shannon, ad director/business page writer; one stoner photographer who supplied nature shots; one Sears "Portrait" photographer (his real job escapes me) who could be called upon for city council meetings; and a handful of contributing writers, some students, some recent grads with day jobs. And then there was me, a Scranton, Penn., native with a journalism degree who'd sent off 100 resumes to magazines in New York City and received 68 "Sorry, nothing available at this time" typewritten notes.
It was a 14-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week job, including one all-nighter during which I pasted up my newspapers, doing my own production, designing my own pages, the clack of a linotype machine in the background, its giant drum thrumming (did someone say death by blogging?). During my 11 months there, I wrote upwards of 200 news stories and features. My contributing writers handed in two or three pieces a week, so the rest of the newspapers were filled out with school lunch menus, rewritten press releases, brides' portraits and snapshots the nonjournalist citizens in town wanted published, both posed and candid, from their dogs wearing tiaras to their daughters in tiaras to a state representative soaked by a broken water pipe and vapor escaping from a coal mine's bore hole in back of the new high school (neither James Frey nor Stephen Glass could make this stuff up).
At The Carbondale Miner and Mid Valley Gazette, the ethos was as follows: Entertainment trumped information; opinion trumped objective reporting; and photos of kids and pets and brides trumped all. Readers loved reading about themselves, even more so when they had written the piece. Of course, they had to buy the paper to see themselves in print (a precursor of Web pay-per-view?).
During my time at the weeklies, I tried introducing journalistic standards and practices. The business manager should give up his column (which every week was a love song to each of the advertisers), the photography should be newsworthy. We needed to investigate the rumor that the local battery plant could be poisoning people, that the new school was structurally unsound. We couldn't just wait for the old hotel on Main Street to burn down (it did within three months of my arrival) or the mayor to drop dead of a heart attack (he obliged soon after my pep talk, filling a hole in more ways than one). The staff needed to produce long articles requiring library research and hours of observing our subjects, not just quoting them. The older generation, the citizen journalists, scoffed. They knew their community, they knew what worked. This was not The Scranton Times (the closest metropolitan daily), I heard more than once.
In the end, the staff and I compromised. The citizen journalists continued to give shout-outs to friends ("And a big Mid Valley welcome home to the Tracewskis, back from a whole week in Beach Haven, New Jersey") tempered with some facts and firsthand observations ("Now that's a tan you can't get at Crystal Lake"). I wrote profiles of various town characters, covered the city council and school board (reporting on one member's indictment for fraud and then his reelection to the post while headed for jail), and broke a story on lead levels in children living near the battery plant. The J-school grad with her law books and ethics and aspirations of a job in New York City - the central authority - learning from the community connectors, and vice versa. Together we made a hybrid, and it sold, efficiently.
One of the first profiles I wrote was on a Mid Valley local, Dom Coroniti, who had just nabbed the Mr. Anthracite bodybuilding title. Coroniti worked at the Charmin factory (that's right, the toilet paper) in construction during the day, so I met with him at his home after 6 one night. He had a weight bench in the finished basement of his house, a split-level ranch suspiciously far nicer than any of the neighbors'. Upstairs sat a pretty wife and the couple's little girl. Coroniti's black T-shirt popped against his baby oiled and iodine-tanned and bulging biceps; his shoulders resembled the Appalachian chain. The etched lines of his pecs and abs were visible beneath the silk-screened T (it had some kind of leaf on it). He was terrifically proud of his body and the effort it took to sculpt it. Yet his main concern was not another title, nor more elite competitions, but the paucity of recreational outlets for the kids in these small towns in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He wanted to stash away enough money to build a community roller skating rink. I remember the last line of my article: "It seems that Dom Coroniti's biggest muscle is his heart."
I met Coroniti at home, at the gym, and we spoke several times over the phone. I went to the library and read up on muscle men, got the history of the Mr. Anthracite contest from the association. Nine-tenths of this was done in person. Even with hours of face time, there were things I missed. Things that a citizen journalist may have picked up on. Things that someone in the blogsphere would have commented upon, providing an even fuller picture of Coroniti. Something that, had it been revealed at the time, might have changed the kicker to the story and his life.
When beginning this piece, I sat in a chair and googled the phrase "future of journalism." The number of mentions: 6 million. I spent 30 hours reading papers and posts, summaries of professional and academic sessions, and blogs and Web sites, before speaking with a single person. I had reams of information at my fingertips, much of it international in scope. For example, during a session at this year's World Economic Forum, futurists predicted the disappearance of newspapers by the year 2014. Last spring, the BBC began employing the term "street journalism," which amounts to transmitting live, camera-filmed video to a Web site. Holland's highly touted citizen photojournalism site, Skoeps, closed this spring after just two years. I saw how easy - and tempting - it would be to merely pen, er, type a report about reports.
To break the information stranglehold, I called on the journalism professor who has guided me since my undergraduate days. William Glavin has taught magazine journalism at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications since 1973. For 12 years, he chaired that department. I confessed to Father Glavin that suddenly I was gripped by the temptation to merely repeat, rather than report or do my own original research. "Jeez, Adcroft, did one of those city cranes hit you in the head?" he replied.
A protector and purchaser of print, Glavin first reassured me that magazines, ones that run long, involved, entertaining stories, stories based on firsthand observation, will be part of the future. If he didn't believe that, why would he be sending kids out into the world with a magazine journalism degree (price tag $140,000+)? Secondly, he addressed print journalists' concern that content on the Web is sometimes less than accurate. Glavin contends that his students, and most people their age, are more adept than the older generation at understanding the differences between a blog post, sometimes more opinion than anything else, and a print article, sourced, fact-checked, vetted by editors. Glavin compares the explosion of online infotainment with the supermarket tabloid craze of bygone years. "At one time, everyone was seeing an alien or Elvis," he snipes. "You think that stuff was fact-checked?"
I then asked Andrea Chambers, the academic program director for the Center for Publishing at New York University, for her view of the future. Chambers has successfully created a course menu that integrates the new and old, providing students with traditional journalism standards and new technology skills. "I think it's a difficult time to be a journalist," she says. "We are still experimenting in this Wild Wild West called the Web. Years from now, people will be bored by some of the sites that do nothing more than make noise."
Her teachers emphasize that a "good blog has some of the same attributes of a good magazine article - solid research, good writing."
I've been onboard with the entertainment value of the Internet for 20 years. (No, I am not channeling Al Gore. But yes, this print journalist was an early adopter.) In 1986, as chief editor of Omni magazine (a big Media magazine shout-out here to Bob Guccione Sr., my then-boss), I ran a piece of fiction by Erik Larsen about a robotic house that does everything for its owner. The house picks up the dry cleaning, prepares the meals and adjusts the temperature to its master's liking. Because the house is programmed to monitor the owner's telephone conversations, the house learns it's about to be dumped for a newer, more beautiful home. The house becomes despondent. The faucets begin to leak, the stairs start to creak, and then one night the air conditioning goes into overdrive. Said owner dies of hypothermia.
Omni teamed up with CompuServe to have the house tried for murder - online. Yes, in 1986. F. Lee Bailey acted as prosecutor; Marvin Mitchelson, the defense. The attorneys dictated their arguments to typists. Sixty CompuServe subscribers had signed up for the session and served as the jury; the jury typed in questions and the lawyers responded. The proceedings lasted about 60 minutes, and in the end, the house got off. (Wasn't the house programmed by a human? Hadn't the owner in a sense killed himself?) At the time, the online event felt like the convergence of several media, the print world reaching through the phone lines to a virtual world, where ideas and emotions flew from people's fingertips.
Six years later, in 1994, I found myself tasked with taking Internet maven and media guru Michael Wolff's series of "netguide" books and making them into a monthly consumer magazine by the same name. The staff and I critiqued between 200 and 300 sites each issue, ran pieces on privacy, produced tear-out "workbooks" on topics ranging from Usenet to Bulletin Board Services to surfing the Web. (Think TV Guide meets The Internet for Dummies.) Arriving at the various destinations meant typing in long addresses or going through an online service provider (AOL, CompuServe, Delphi and Genie, for starters). Time and time again we happened upon sites for the disabled, for people suffering from rare and awful diseases empowered for the first time to share their experiences as patients, to find silent comfort from those thousands of miles away, as well as soccer, football and baseball newsgroups, and loads of game rooms. It quickly became apparent that whole neighborhoods of like-minded folks - neighborhoods of acceptance - were springing up each day. Community was the message. But journalism seemed to belong to print, and to television.
Also in 1994, media journalist Jim Romenesko took out an ad in Editor & Publisher offering himself up as an Internet reporter. There were no takers, he says. Several years later, as a kind of hobby, he started mediagossip.com and soon thereafter, in the fall of 1999, was hired by The Poynter Institute as an online columnist. The future of journalism, he insists, is "moving towards an online world."
"The Washington Post did a focus group a couple of years ago and found that young people said even if they were offered the paper for free, they wouldn't take it," he explains. "Too much clutter and it isn't green. Why would you bother with a paper when all you have to do is turn on the computer?"
Romenesko is an Internet loyalist who sees the Web as a place where good journalism is thriving. Take ProPublica.org, for example, the investigative site started by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger.
"I think the amount of that type of journalism is going to expand," claims Romenesko. "It's true that now everything's out there and some of what's online will be crap - the Perez Hilton stuff - and some of it will be hyperlocal news."
Admittedly, he adds, the standards online currently aren't uniform - as evidenced by the work of Mayhill Fowler, the self-described "citizen journalist" who, armed with a handheld recorder, snagged Barack Obama's derogatory remarks about Pennsylvania voters and then posted those remarks on The Huffington Post (the paparazzi and other traditional reporters have engaged in this "gotcha" journalism for decades). And as long as people can type, the Web will probably offer up heaping platefuls of personal opinion and self-promoting content. But is the lack of traditional reporting standards really something we should be concerned with? Yes, since those thousands of wagging tongues - more precisely, wagging fingers - occasionally pass off opinion as information. Peter Kahn, Pulitzer Prize-winning former Dow Jones chairman, has put it this way: "Part of the problem here lies in fashionable philosophies that argue there are no basic values of right and wrong, that news is merely a matter of views."
Most of the sources for this article felt the under-30 generation could separate the wheat from the chaff, the news from the views. The academics saw it as their job to teach them how to do so. And despite the talk of the Web as a level playing field, all admitted it's obvious that some sites are simply better - better written, better balanced, better edited - than others. Just because nearly everyone now has access to the Web does not mean everyone is equal or that their stories, photos, videos or ravings are equal. "I think the reason we have a constitution rather than majority vote in this country is that certain things are more important than other things, in the arts and in journalism," says the legendary Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation and director of the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at Columbia University. Navasky points out that the Web has sped up the news cycle and that "the consequence has been to pressure the mainstream media to speed up. That hasn't served us well." In order to compete with the Web, many of us in magazines and newspapers bring down the size of the stories, making them news-lite, hoping that will sell. (After all, it has worked for soda and beer.)
The basic threat to journalism's future may not be the Internet at all, but the lack of resources at journalists' - all journalists, print, broadcast, radio, online - disposal. The stream of reporters once working at newspapers and newsmagazines has been reduced to a trickle of individuals. With few exceptions, the print media can no longer assign investigative journalists for long periods to one story; even rarer is the opportunity to pursue a lead and then to tease out, carefully, methodically, the truth about a certain situation.
Navasky points out that the market (Wall Street) can't be the sole guarantor of print culture, and for journalism as one wishes it to be. "For the last generation, people have pointed to families - the Bancrofts and so on - as the guarantor of quality," he says. "Vartan Gregorian [president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York] has been going around talking about universities making newspapers part of their portfolio." What we may see then is a business that is also part philanthropic organization, reliant upon money from a different stripe of citizen journalist.
This is already being played out with ProPublica.org. Led by Steiger and funded by the Sandler Foundation, ProPublica.org has a nonprofit newsroom filled with investigative reporters. "Deep dive" stories are offered to traditional journalism outlets (newspapers, magazines, broadcast) as exclusives at no cost to the news organization.
"Even now, traditional media are putting information first online," Steiger says. "The New York Times, LA Times, The Wall Street Journal are breaking stories on their Web sites." He adds that at one time, metro papers all over the United States had foreign correspondents, but no more. ProPublica.org not only aims to fill that need for investigative pieces but also produces supplemental material online, such as the full text from a congressional hearing and all types of "raw material."
"While I love print, I think that electrons are an extremely effective way to deliver information. I am tremendously excited by the possibilities of how the Web will change journalism," Steiger adds.
During the Columbine tragedy in April 1999, I witnessed how powerful up-to-the-minute supplemental material - raw information - could be. By then I had moved on to the editor-in-chief's seat at Seventeen magazine. The magazine's Web site - which had in the ballpark of 12 million hits a month - sprang into action just three hours after students had died. We lined up an online chat with a psychologist so kids could ask questions. We set up a bulletin board where condolences could be posted to the victims' families. We created a poll asking how many students were afraid to go to school the next day. We gave directions on what to do if you were being bullied, or if you felt a friend was in danger of harming himself or others.
Throughout the night, teenage girls and boys wrote us, expressing the full gamut of their emotions, from sorrow to rage to confusion. The most chilling e-mails came from Columbine students who had watched their friends die. Around midnight, one student wrote us, "This is now the only place I feel safe."
While endeavors like ProPublica.org, with its extraordinary content, may help keep both traditional media and investigative journalism alive, one has to wonder whether anyone will want - or be able to comprehend - complex, long-form stories. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, writer Nicholas Carr raises a question most of us have been too timid (or arrogant) to ask: "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"
"I think reading print [journalism] is psychologically different from reading online. Print improves one's ability to navigate around one's ideas," says Navasky.
Carr quotes Tuft's Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, as saying, "We are not only what we read. We are how we read."
David Plotz, deputy editor of Slate, finds the discussion about Google dumbing us down a specious one: "I am skeptical of the notion that people are made dumber or smarter by technology. What happens is that they become intelligent in the way that that culture requires intelligence," he says. "We become intelligent at using the technology we have, and that new kind of intelligence may look inferior to traditionalists, but it requires a healthy adaptability."
If you accept that we are how we read, then it follows that we are also how we write. Perhaps to produce a piece that stays with the reader, that shows us something about ourselves as humans (even if it is something we don't like, says Glavin), we require the human interaction of looking a subject (who is usually just another person, after all) in the eye, watching him walk away, listening carefully to his voice on the phone. No doubt the perfectly researched, perfectly reasoned, perfectly written piece will still elude those of us who reach for more than uninformed opinion or a goody bag of facts. Given today's culture, even those of us who have been writing and editing print for more than a score of years, will create pieces that are part blog, part feature, part opinion piece, part news story (as this is). Writing reflects the time in which we live as well as the professional standards we uphold.
The kicker to the Dom Coroniti story? A few years after my profile of him ran, he was found in his car, slumped over the wheel with three bullets to the back of the head. Had I been a more seasoned journalist, perhaps I would have caught a whiff of possible mob involvement or steroid use. Had the story been posted on a Web site, someone may have commented on Coroniti's claim that he was 100 percent natural athlete. Or might have remarked on his marijuana leaf T-shirt. Perhaps then a fuller, better story may have been told.
As I wrote in 1994, when launching NetGuide: "Journalists have long understood the powers of words to incite, inspire, to soothe; words once scribbled in the night on the Berlin Wall, tucked into the diaries and letters of dissidents whose voices had been stilled by governments. Smuggled to the outside world in the form of poems or plays or song lyrics, words become our ambassadors to other minds, seeds of freedom sown to influence, entertain, inform. All words, whether written in ink, paint, or typed onto a computer screen, breathe life into an idea marrying diverse concepts, knitting one soul to the other. It seems only natural then that journalists should embrace the word-laden net, casting it out and pulling in a bounty of thought."
And then, it is our duty as journalists to make sense of it, to find the truth in it, for ourselves and others.
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