The need for journalists in a digital world

January 2nd, 2009 by Perry

Here are two recent columns on the value of professional reporters - journalists - in reporting the news. Charlie Mitchell says “the world needs reporters” who “do yeoman-like work.” He says they

sit through the trials. They go to the city council and school board meetings. They listen to the athletes and coaches and to the campaign speeches. They pore over the public records, interview the sheriff, spend hours on the phone tracking down a state trooper for information on a wreck. They go to the ribbon-cuttings and press conferences. They read more bills than most legislators.  And then they relate their findings in a straightforward manner.

Mitchell predicts newspapers “especially smaller, community newspapers - will be around for quite a while.” (More on this subject at the Mississippi Press Association blog, InkBlots.)

Paul Mulshine, an opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, has a piece in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal titled “All I  Wanted for Christmas Was a Newspaper: Bloggers are no replacement for real journalists.” (Hat Tip: Jackson Jambalaya: Blogs v. Journalism). Mushine also writes about the need for serious and trained journalism and the challenges newspapers face with new media.

The problem is that printing a hard copy of a publication packed with solid, interesting reporting isn’t a guarantee of economic success in the age of instant news. Blogger Glenn Reynolds of “Instapundit” fame seems to be pleased at this. In his book, “An Army of Davids,” Mr. Reynolds heralds an era in which “[m]illions of Americans who were in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff.”

No, they can’t. Millions of American can’t even pronounce “pundit,” or spell it for that matter. On the Internet and on the other form of “alternative media,” talk radio, a disliked pundit has roughly a 50-50 chance of being derided as a “pundint,” if my eyes and ears are any indication.

The type of person who can’t even keep track of the number of times the letter “N” appears in a two-syllable word is not the type of person who is going to offer great insight into complex issues….

The common thread here, whether the subject is foreign, national or local, is that the writer in question is performing a valuable task for the reader — one that no sane man would perform for free. He is assembling what in the business world is termed the “executive summary.” Anyone can duplicate a long and tedious report. And anyone can highlight one passage from that report and either praise or denounce it. But it takes both talent and willpower to analyze the report in its entirety and put it in a context comprehensible to the casual reader.

This highlights the real flaw in the thinking of those who herald the era of citizen journalism. They assume newspapers are going out of business because we aren’t doing what we in fact do amazingly well, which is to quickly analyze and report on complex public issues. The real reason they’re under pressure is much more mundane. The Internet can carry ads more cheaply, particularly help-wanted and automotive ads.

So if you want a car or a job, go to the Internet. But don’t expect that Web site to hire somebody to sit through town-council meetings and explain to you why your taxes will be going up. Soon, newspapers won’t be able to do it either.

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