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Amid wrenching change, some hopeful signs for journalism

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Gene Policinski
April 17, 2010

Headlines—ironically, given this subject—have proclaimed for some time that newspapers in the United States are dying, have documented bankruptcy filings by companies that own large news groups, and have noted thousands of lost newsroom jobs.


All of this is good reason for all of us to be concerned, not so much about the survival of any one newspaper or even a news group, but rather about the collective damage to the notion of a “free press”—a private industry, largely producing news printed on paper, that is charged with the unique civic roles of holding government accountable and providing the information needed in a representative democracy.


And yet, there’s also this undeniable fact: We now have access to more news, in more ways, more quickly and in more detail, than ever before.


Granted, there’s the problem that much of this news is there for people to take without paying. And, for more than a decade, journalism as we knew it has been battered by a loss of income, as advertising has fled online to places such as Craigslist, and by a loss of readers to new media, ranging from Google-Yahoo!-like news aggregators to Huffington Post-like bloggers.


For some, this transition—or tragedy—was marked in history by the cancellation of the 2009 annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But to paraphrase humorist Mark Twain, the rumors of newspapers’ demise are exaggerated. From the just-concluded 2010 meeting of American Society of News Editors—note the change to “News,” also made in 2009—come signs of challenged-yet-robust journalism:


--From iPad to iPod, from home computers to “smart phones,” we now have access to news when we want it: blogs and Twitter feeds from friends and strangers, giant new pools of data, and yes, authoritative and professional news reports that tell us about our community and our nation.


--New technology is more than just new ways to get information. Yahoo gave ASNE attendees a test look at an upcoming application that will blend mobile news with very local information, all pegged to where we are on the map. As described in a blog from the ASNE NewsNow Summit 2010, Yahoo will provide a “‘News Around the Corner’ section that can scan dozens of local blogs for content relevant to an area within a few blocks of a user’s location. Localized public information like health/safety inspections and crime reports will also be offered.”


--“Watchdog journalism” on public officials will get a boost from something called a “Politiwidget,” which can provide an individualized report on campaign contributions, voting records and other data—all updated automatically.


--New methods of gathering news come with new ways of presenting it, from gathering information and seeking comments via Twitter and Facebook to video reports to “talking bar charts” that provide supplementary images and commentary as readers click on data in an online report.


To be sure, there was no mistaking the painful present at the summit. There were repeated reminders that nearly 40,000 journalism jobs have disappeared nationwide. A panel discussed whether the government should step in to bail out failing news companies or to “save journalism” if not the corporate owners—a once-unthinkable subject.


Still, even a reduced number of attending editors included a good number of news innovators, from startup operators to veteran journalists, building on the best practices of the past to construct the news operations of the future. A major signal of that blend of old and new journalism during the ASNE gathering: A Pulitzer Prize, awarded jointly to the most-traditional of the traditional news media, The New York Times, and to journalism newbie ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative-journalism operation, for collaborative reporting on the decisions doctors made at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina.


Other encouraging signs: News-job losses are slowing; financial balance sheets are balancing. Most newspapers remain profitable, though less so than in their glory years. Good journalism continues in places like Bristol, Va., where the Herald Courier won a Pulitzer for public service for its reports on mismanagement of natural-gas royalties, and Milwaukee, where a Journal Sentinel reporter won a Pulitzer for stories about problems in a state-funded child-care subsidy program.


Amid the most wrenching change in the news industry in more than a century, creativity abounds. There is dogged determination to protect and develop investigative and accountability journalism that examines, challenges and reports on our public institutions.


All of that is worth a few headlines, too.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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