Thursday, May 7, 2009

Activists and Local Journalism

I'm a big fan of David Simon's series, The Wire, as most of you probably are. I don't, however, really think that members of Congress should formulate policy about the future of journalism on Simon's opinions. Simon is a brilliant and talented writer, but he's not really a good person to weigh in on the subject for a lot of reasons. Even Simon doesn't think you should listen to Simon.
Ideally, rather than listening to me, you should be hearing from any number of voices of those still laboring in American journalism.
Simon hasn't worked at a newspaper since 1995. Journalism and media has changed a lot in that amount of time. Simon's opinions seem to suggest that he doesn't necessarily have a good grasp of what's going on with media today.

He dismisses "new media" because "bloggers contribute little more than repitition, commentary, and so forth." (Arguably, that is the role of this particular blog, but there are many blogs that contribute original reporting and simply use the blog as a medium.) David Simon sees value in paying real professionals to cover beats in the city. I agree that sometimes important things don't get covered because they don't have a full-time reporter writing about it. Still, I think I agree with Kevin Drum's response to the argument that local news coverage is suffering:
The fact is that most communities have a pretty hard core of activists who do go to planning board meeting and city council meetings and so forth. And 99% of the time, they just do their thing and the local paper does no more than print short blurbs about what's going on. And the rest of us ignore it.

But every once in a while, something becomes a big deal. Not because the Times or the Post does or doesn't have a reporter at a board meeting, but because the activists suddenly start screaming louder and the community gets up in arms about something. Then the local press starts to pay attention.

See, before it was really important to have reporters dissemenate the information activists gave them to the general public when something was really important, but (and here's where Drum and I diverge) now activists have their own means of publishing information and getting it out to people in the community, the local paper's role is sort of redundant. Rather than transcribing what the activists say, the activists can get it out there themselves. (Possibly at the cost of proper grammar, but in my experience what makes a good activist isn't necessarily grammatical skills.)

In a weird way, what we're seeing, after decades of trying to professionalize the industry of journalism, is a sort of de-professionalization. Anyone has access to publishing information, and those with things of value tend to get attention. That's not neccesarily financially sustainable, but it is the beast that we are dealing with now.

I also don't necessarily think that Simon's suggestion that media deregulation is the way to go. In fact, Simon himself was a casualty of media consolidation. What's really important is that what's profitable (gossip columns, specialized trade information) will remain profitable. The other stuff has to figure out another model. It might be that non-profits (which are acitivists in their own ways, even if, like with the Center for Independent Media, journalism itself is the cause) will end up subsidizing the production of information they feel is important. In the end, that's the role the local reporter filled anyway, they just didn't happen to be raising the rukus themselves.

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