Frank Shaw: What Replaces Media? So in this world of citizen journalists, who covers the city council meetings? Who applies the resources to uncover what is really happening in Iraq and how the US government is (or is not) doing the right things? Today, it’s the New York Times and their ilk. Tomorrow, who will it be?
We already know who’s covering the city council meetings today. In contemporary American journalism, in most places, it’s not the NY Times and other major dailies. Most likely, it’s nobody.
Oh, daily newspapers do cover the government, sort of, in the major cities whose names they bear. The San Francisco Chronicle has City Hall reporters — in San Francisco. Ditto the Seattle Times — in Seattle. And so on.
But urban newspapers cover few if any of the other local governments where they circulate. Metropolitan areas contain dozens of cities and governmental units, not to mention school boards and a host of other important but (generally) dull groups that tax us, spend our money and otherwise determine how we live major parts of our lives.
So when the dominant dailies do cover those places and people and organizations, for the most part, they do so with drive-by journalism for the most part — cherry-picking the hot story of the moment and ignoring the nuts-and-bolts of civic coverage. This is just a fact of economic life: Newspapers simply don’t have the resources to cover everything that matters. They have to pick and choose.
And the local broadcasters? Forget it. They don’t cover anything to speak of, except crime and spot stories. Newspapers have been just about the only organizations with even a prayer of covering things. Now they don’t even make the pretense in most cases.
So who’ll cover the truly local news? Well, there are little weeklies and small dailies. They do some of it, but even they are facing some of the economic pressures that are causing such turmoil in the news business.
Which is why the bloggers and other citizen journalists are going to be so important. They will do the coverage in the future. They won’t do it professionally, not in a traditional sense. But it’s at least arguable that some coverage is better than none.
Who’ll cover Iraq? This is a tougher question. The NY Times spends more than $1 million a year, by its own public accounts, on keeping a bureau open in Baghdad. Ditto other major news organizations. We should be thankful they do.
It would not be good news if the business model eroded entirely for today’s professional journalism. Eventually, we’d sort through the anarchy, but the interim would be even messier than what we already know is coming.
The major news organizations in Iraq hire dozens of people on the ground, who report to them from the neighborhoods and communities where they live. Some of them could be blogging instead of — or in addition to — filing reports to the American professionals, assuming it was safe to do so. The Times coverage would be more complete, not less, with such things, though the Times would have to take the uncharacteristic step of saying it wasn’t absolutely vouching for the postings from its stringers. This would require more media literacy on the part of the audience, and the Times could help by teaching it.
What if the business collapses entirely? Can we sort out the information bloggers and other citizen journalists provide — and give the ones who want to be journalists sufficient training — to replace the (flawed) system we have today?
Some smart people are working on products to help sort through the noise. Will they do a good enough job of it? Billion-dollar businesses will be created by the ones who do.
If we’re lucky, we’ll keep the good part of today’s professional journalism, finding a way to pay for it, and augment it with citizen media. If we get this wrong, it will be ugly.
(Disclosure: I own a small amount of New York Times Co. stock.)