I am a journalistic optimist

Posted on November 28, 2010

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I didn’t think it was possible, but when it came down to examining the future of journalism and free speech in our democratic nation, I came out with a glass half-full.

In Jay Rosen’s discussion of journalistic authority, he sees the internet, in a very Shirkian sort of way, as breaking down barriers to connect with others and leading to a more knowledgeable, engaged citizenry. He sees bloggers and their communities stripping the power from traditional news sources and returning it to the people. The political blogger acting a bit like Robin Hood. Taking the power to define the sphere of consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance from the authority-rich journalists and giving it to the “poor” – the masses. (If only they could somehow provide that power to the information-poor populations… ah, but that is the realist speaking, and today I’m an optimist!)

While I see some issues with this argument, it resonates more with me than those  put forward by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney in “How to Save Journalism.” In their article, they make a very strong case for re-establishing government subsidies to maintain a free and informative press. While I 100% agree that we need to do all we can to keep (or create) a diverse and competitive press, I don’t agree that the internet has no ability to help us achieve this goal.

Digital technologies have dramatically lowered production and distribution costs. Still, the main source of great journalism is compensated human labor, and, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. We’re longtime advocates of citizen journalism and the blogosphere, but our experience tells us that volunteer labor is insufficient to meet America’s journalism needs. The digital revolution has the capacity to radically democratize and improve journalism, but only if there is a foundation of newsrooms–all of which will be digital or have digital components–with adequately paid staff who interact with and provide material for the blogosphere.

Near the end of their article, they reference the fact that the internet and publishing online does offer some solutions to cost-barriers. But what they seem to miss here is all the other potential to connect citizens to information. They also miss the fact that “volunteer labor” does in fact turn out some very good news and information, and people often do better work for the benefit of others or for love than for money. There has recently been some discussion surrounding this in the medical field, but it holds true across many disciplines, including the pursuit of truth and reporting the news.

I’m not saying that we should expect to keep journalists in their jobs with little to no salaries, but we should be looking towards what tangible benefits digital media offer for the future of our press. There are opportunities to connect part-time, freelance or just plain free journalists who happily write about their neighborhoods, topics they’re interested in or stories close to their hearts. While all the amateurism on the Net may be worrying as far as sticking to ethical journalism, if bloggers are writing for a specific news outlet and not just on their own web blog, their motivations and their journalistic ethics will look a lot more like a professional journalist than an amateur blogger.

Before learning more about the history of journalism and its decline since the 70’s, I was fairly negative about the future of our newspapers and news magazines. And even about the future of public broadcasting – perhaps I should still be when a conservative House takes charge in 2011. Newspapers have shut down, moved online or just seen severe cuts, the future of J-Schools are being threatened and the internet is crawling with amateur reporters and new outlets to spread lies quicker and further. Yet, me, the technological realidealist is optimistic about the future of a true, free, diverse and competitive journalism.

With all the evidence mounting towards increasing access to information, providing for a healthier and happier citizenry, and with Nichols and McChesney’s own example of the Scandinavian countries’ thriving news media, I am hopeful that the U.S. will begin to learn from its own mistakes – the same lessons that many other countries have already gleaned from our errors. Yes, I see the economic factors of the northern nations, but with a country as large and diverse as the U.S. digital communications offer ways to break some barriers — geographic, economic, generational, etc. Plus there’s Jay Rosen’s pivotal point of how the “echo-chamber” of the internet is actually bringing new issues into different spheres of consensus, debate and discussion without the authoritative hand of the major news outlets.

While the digital “revolution” is not seeing results that some optimists would hope for in the arena of governance and creating active democracies, telling news-worthy stories or taking part in important conservations has seen something revolutionary. This participation, shaping discussions and sharing stories, offers a more tangible return than engaging digitally with government. The opportunities to speak freely are limitless. There are many real two-way conversations happening and those that are able to engage with this new medium are feeling more connected with information than ever before. There are still barriers of access and literacy, but the opportunities to connect and share important news on the internet will help to revive a diverse journalistic community.

I see no end in sight for our free press. It will only get better.

(And the University of Colorado at Boulder isn’t shutting down its J-School.)

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Posted in: COM 597