If a Journalist Says That His Losing His Job Diminishes Democracy, Fact Check It


Slate's Jack Shafer mocks the pretentions of journalists who equate the loss of even one ink-stained wretch's job with the hobbling of democracy–and in doing so celebrates the advances in technology and institutions that have given every schoolboy the sheer reportin' power of any dozen fedora-wearing, shoe-leather-consuming newshack of days gone by. Fascinating and fun throughout, it is, but here are some choice excerpts:

It's hard to sympathize with the woe-is-us crowd of journalists when you learn that the number of full-timers employed by U.S. news-media organizations today has increased by almost 70 percent compared with 1971….The idea that a newsroom should employ X hundred staffers because it has traditionally employed X hundred staffers ignores the changes technology has made in the news market…..Likewise, journalists don't want you to know this, but thanks to technology, it's never been easier to hunt down a story, capture it, and bring it back to the presses for printing. A middle-school student sitting at a Web terminal has more raw reportorial power at his fingertips than the best reporter working at the New York Times had in, say, 1975. The teenager can't command an undersecretary of defense to return his phone call as the Times guy can, but thanks to Google he can harvest news stories and background information that would take the 1975 model journalist days to collect.

The young amateur can also tap hundreds of free databases serving up scientific, legislative, regulatory, and business information in an afternoon that a team of 1975 reporters couldn't assemble in a week. Give him access to JSTOR, PubMed, Edgar, Nexis, Factiva, and other important sites and he'll write three stories in the time the '70s veteran reports one…..So, if the Los Angeles Times peaked at 1,200 reporters and it's down to about 940 now and Tribune wants to cut it further, it's hardly proof that the corporate meanies are defunding the newsroom.
Newspaper publishers presumably fund investigations because readers expect them–or because they want something to throw at the Pulitzer committee come contest time. But newspapers aren't the only organizations trolling for investigative news. The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity has broken as many stories as almost any big-city daily in the last couple of decades, as have the Center for Investigative Reporting and Chicago's Better Government Association. Activist organizations have similarly collected countless investigative scoops about human rights abuses, environmental crimes, consumer rip-offs, and more. Long before today's newsroom budget crunch, newspapers were de facto outsourcing a good share of investigative reporting to the nonprofits, whose findings they trumpeted on their front pages.

NEXT: Fat Man In A Hurry

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  1. I’d be more worried about issues like shameless pandering, the obsession with Dead White Girls ™ and the like. Of course, even that is old news.

  2. Great Caesar’s ghost!

  3. So the expansion of journalism to include incompetents diminishes the watchdog role of the media? I guess if Shafer can publish a story on monkeyfishing, there really isn’t much left to journalism.

  4. . . . or someone who writes a story on monkeyfishing is a better journalist than those who claim “if I go, so goes Democracy”.

  5. From the article:

    “If you fillet the average daily newspaper?cutting out the sports section, the comics, the crossword, the horoscope, the opinion pages, the entertainment coverage, and the special sections devoted to home, dining, medicine, travel, cars, real estate, and TV listings?relatively little of the democracy-enhancing, life-sustaining reportage they boast about actually gets printed. ”

    Then cut out the reports of the two fires (which affect about a total of 1/4 square mile of the population) and the PR releases from government agencies and you’re left with about 3 pages plus the obits. Hell, most people buy the Sunday papers for the advertising supplements. And I get that stuff free in the mail anyway!

    Even the investigative reporting is garbage. I got a kick out the Tribune’s 5-part Mortgage Fraud series. Most of the fraud was FHA loans… and rather than investigate the idiots at the government offices underwiting these things, they basically just pointed fingers at crooks who try to defraud the government. Crooks they may be, but not one minute was spent reporting on the fact that the government is hiring morons in the first place. If the government hangs out a sign that says “Easy Money”, don’t be shocked by the takers.

  6. If this is true, then why does the Bush Administration go ballistic over the NY Times? I find it bizarre that Shafer could write this during the least truthful administration in my lifetime. Don’t forget that, smug as Jack Shafer is about monkeyfishing, no middle school kids will hold the administration to its word. We still need the papers.

  7. “It’s never been easier to hunt down a story, capture it, and bring it back to the presses for printing.”

    Except that’s not journalism.

  8. “Except that’s not journalism.”

    No, it’s Jack Shafer.

  9. Hey if the New York Time ever fired every reporter that lied the paper would stop printing becuase there would be no one left to print a story becuase even their chief editor would be unemployed

  10. Except that’s not journalism.

    Do you have the research to back up that accusation?

  11. My two cents (I know you’re all tingly):

    I’m no flag waving supporter of the ‘traditional media’ but…

    Tradtional or Big Journalism(tm) will always have its place. Blogging and the like (which is basically what Shafer is talking about) has its place and its value in the world of editorialism, but doesn’t offer anywhere near as much in the realm of original (and I cannot overstate the term ‘original’) journalism. Bloggers, for the most part (with some rare exceptions) take original news produced by the New York Times and other high profile MSM outlets, and then comment and provide further analysis on it.

    Some in the MSM find this distasteful, I do not. I think that thoughtful editorial commentary and analysis can come from anywhere. But where the MSM will always hold its advantage is in a concept known as news bureaus. I may blog to my hearts content and talk about the Iraq war, but without getting on the ground in Iraq, I can only perform second hand (or third hand) analysis of the facts.

    How many bloggers (who aren’t journalists first) are getting on the phone and calling up sources and contacts to get direct quotes? How many are cultivating contacts and sources in the field? Few, I’d argue. How many are travelling to far away lands and getting interviews with high level people, or putting themselves in dangerous circumstances to ferret out original stories.

    It’s like the difference between a family practice physician and a research physician. Both have their respective roles, and both are valuable, but generally, only one is uncovering ‘new’ facts and techniques which a larger community can then ‘use’.

    There are other issues. If the New York Times prints a quote from some official, we’re predisposed to assume that there’s some integrity there (yes, even if it’s the NYT). But if Ralph Duselbergh of Crow Flats, NM prints what he claims to be an original quote, how much credence would it be given? This is not to say that Mr. Duselbergh has falsified information, it’s just that without the backing of a large organization, the originating official could later deny what was said. Then whom do you believe?

    Admittedly this argument is just an example. We’re still in the midst of this upheaval, and the whole concept is still in play.

    I do agree, however, that journalists of the MSM have become whiney. And I do not think that MSM organizations that trim their staff due to changing technology are a threat to this here democracy.

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