The newspaper industry's travails make a fascinating case study. But the reality is that democracy depends on professional journalism more than any other calling. The framers knew.
The Bill of Rights was ratified on this day in 1791 and in the First Amendment the Framers explicitly protected only one profession and commercial institution, the press. They understood: no journalism, no republican system of government.
While newspapering in the early days of the nation was a riot of partisan attacks, it was evolving toward its heart: Producing what famed reporter Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
The way that only a large, respected daily newspaper with a highly skilled and veteran staff can stand against corruption is on display with the film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of systematic covering up of child abuse by the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church. As a former investigative reporter and editor, I can attest that this is the most accurate movie about journalism.
Of course the press is in trouble, even though people are deluged with more words and information than ever thanks to what the late Sen. Ted Stevens called the “tubes.” Much of this has been self-inflicted. But with the traditional advertising model “disrupted,” nobody has found a way to fully replace the revenues that brought abundant real journalism to masses of people at almost no cost.
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The big chains sold out to Wall Street when their margins were astronomical; when that shifted, Wall Street punished them with a vengeance. With some honorable exceptions, many have since chased fads that work against quality journalism. It is no coincidence that the Iraq war, spectacular rise of political power of big corporations and the financial crisis coincided with the radical downsizing of America’s professional press.
On Monday, the family owned Erie Times-News in Pennsylvania sold to a chain. In Las Vegas, nobody outside of a circle of top executives even knows who has purchased the Review-Journal. The LA Times is fighting its Chicago masters to produce real journalism. Some newspapers have become toys for rich people with no commitment. I am fortunate to be writing in one of the last large, locally family-owned papers.
Real journalism is not shallow lists, cat photo galleries or inch-deep political horse race stories. It exists to afflict the powerful and empower the afflicted. It is “printing what someone else does not want printed,” George Orwell said. “Everything else is public relations.” It can’t be crowdsourced or written and edited by unpaid 12-year-olds.
So happy Bill of Rights day. And as much as we can stumble, make mistakes and have blind spots, thank God for an independent press. I hope we can keep it.
Today’s Econ Haiku:
The force awakens
It’s Amazon’s first tower
Data, not death star