Can newspapers & journalism survive?

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Going back a bit further, to the early part of the 20th century, C.C. Regier in The Era of the Muckrakers chronicled the crucial link between watchdog journalism and social reform: "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. The convict and peonage systems were destroyed in some states; prison reforms were undertaken; a federal pure food act was passed in 1906; child labour laws were adopted by many states; a federal employers' liability act was passed in 1906, and a second one in 1908, which was amended in 1910; forest reserves were set aside; the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible; a policy of the conservation of natural resources was followed; eight-hour laws for women were passed in some states; racetrack gambling was prohibited; 20 states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913; 25 states had workmen's compensation laws in 1915; an income tax amendment was added to the Constitution; the Standard Oil and Tobacco companies were dissolved; Niagara Falls was saved from the greed of corporations; Alaska was saved from the Guggenheims and other capitalists; and better insurance laws and packing-house laws were placed on the statute books."

In recent months, even amid historically distressing conditions, newspapers across the country have continued to research and publish stories that have exposed corruption and injustice at local and national levels, held powerful people accountable, and revealed inequities enjoyed by the privileged:

  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Its "Cashing in on Kids" series exposed rampant fraud and other abuses in Wisconsin's taxpayer-subsidized child-care system.
  • The Chicago Tribune: The paper brought to light serious inequities in the University of Illinois by showing how hundreds of students with inferior academic performances were accepted ahead of more-deserving students because they were well connected.
  • The Sarasota Herald-Tribune: It analyzed a massive number of real estate transactions in Florida for the last decade and exposed how a scheme in the housing market happened and, ultimately, contributed to the economic collapse in the state.
  • The Washington Post: Coverage of a fatal Metro crash initially characterized as a freak accident revealed a track record of systemic negligence in ignoring emerging safety issues.
  • The Kansas City Star: A six-month investigation documented the rising numbers of immigrants who wind up being trafficked and held against their will for labor, sex, and money in the Midwest.
  • The Seattle Times: Its exposé on the collapse of Washington Mutual detailed how exotic, predatory practices doomed a 119-year-old institution that had survived the Great Depression and the savings and loan crisis.

A cursory Google search of noteworthy newspaper exposés and watchdog journalism from 2010 and 2009 would unearth scores of other examples. (And yes, that is a telling—if obvious and practical—recommendation.)

While few thoughtful individuals would argue that the print newspaper as a form is sacrosanct, the fact is that in the journalism world, print newspaper organizations still produce the vast majority of the news that is packaged in other forms on radio, television, and the Internet. And when it comes to specific types of journalism—investigative, public service, reporting derived from the local city hall, county government, state government, courthouse, and police station—it's the print journalists who are still the primary ones doing the in-depth digging.

"Even if we assume that basic, breaking news would still somehow get out on the Internet without newspapers, think about all the things that have been dug up in the last few years by newspaper reporters—whether you're talking about the national level (CIA waterboarding and black-site prisons, abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal) or at the local and state level, say in California (the city of Bell salary scandal, scandals at the L.A. County hospital and the LAPD)—the public would know little or nothing about any of those topics if it weren't for newspapers. So yes, we better care," said Eric Lichtblau, a New York Times investigative reporter. Lichtblau won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2006 for a series of stories on secret eavesdropping on American citizens by the Bush Administration. The stories stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty. Lichtblau, a former colleague of mine from the Los Angeles Times, is a study in aplomb, not given to alarm. "Some of what's happened to newspapers is self-inflicted; newspapers were slow to see the advent of the Internet and the tremendous impact it would have," he said. "If more media executives had tried to position themselves five or 10 years ago as information providers— providing instant business data like Bloomberg, for instance, or government data like the Center for Responsive Politics—rather than through the traditional news prism, we might not be operating so dangerously close to the margins right now in our financial schemes.

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Spring 2011

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