Who Will Tell Us?

Journalism is losing its reporters

Read through the coverage of any presidential campaign and you will invariably find instances in which the conventional wisdom was turned on its head. Yet there is a sense that the conventional wisdom about the current contest has been especially wrong. The New York Times, itself a chief purveyor of conventional wisdom, said as much in a March 9 analysis that claimed the “accuracy rate” has plummeted to “new lows.”

It’s difficult to say definitively that the press and pundits covering the 2008 campaign have missed the mark more often, and by a wider margin, than in elections past—though given everything from “McCain’s done” to “It’s all about Iowa,” it’s not hard to believe. What one can say definitively is that conventional wisdom is vulnerable in large part because it is often based on imperfect and incomplete information; and that the source of the vast majority of that information—reporting by mainstream news outlets—is under assault as never before.

The steady drip of buyouts and layoffs has consumed an estimated four thousand newsroom jobs in print alone since the turn of the century, according to the much-chewed-over annual State of the News Media report released in March by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. As to whether the Web is replenishing this reportorial firepower, the authors are blunt: “In print, broadcast and elsewhere, more effort is moving to packaging and repurposing material….But less is being devoted to original newsgathering, especially the bearing witness and monitoring of basic news.”

The current presidential election is arguably the most important in recent history, given the magnitude of the problems the winner will confront on day one—yet fewer seasoned reporters are questioning both candidates and voters; fewer journalists are out bearing witness. Meanwhile, the ever-growing armies of pundits deployed by cable outlets on Big Nights—the debates, Super Tuesday, etc.—yammer on about What It All Means, though nary a one goes out knocking on the doors of the folks who might tell them.

This actual life cycle of news and information, however, seems not to temper the triumphal declarations issued by those manning the ramparts of the digital revolution. Arianna Huffington and her colleagues at the Huffington Post declare themselves, in a March 31 New Yorker article, “ready to reinvent the American newspaper.” That may be true, but it depends on how one defines “ready.” Is the HuffPost, or most any other new-media operation, ready to produce the kinds of stories that dominated the Pulitzers this year—painstaking investigations done in the public interest, not in service of a partisan agenda or a need to “be in the conversation”?

We’re talking about the type of journalism that is so damned hard to do well, the kind that takes more than just smarts and the ability to turn a phrase; it takes a conviction that learning the truth of a situation—like it or not—and then telling that truth to the public square are among the highest callings of a civilized society. To date, that kind of journalism is conspicuously absent from most freestanding digital news operations. But it’s precisely the kind of work that anyone who would truly reinvent the newspaper must fund and publish.

The PEJ report cites a number of promising experiments in digital news, most of them local, and fledgling efforts like ProPublica and Global News are encouraging. But they are baby steps, and it remains to be seen whether they can both survive and produce the kinds of original journalism that our democracy needs. The question of whether or for how long newspapers will continue to exist in paper and ink is irrelevant. What matters is that the DNA of the best journalism—investigative, public-service-oriented—be instilled in the news outlets of the twenty-first century. And that takes more than just talk. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.