The Good Fight

Some years ago I was catching up with an old friend who had recently left newspapering. He was the classic ink-in-his-veins news junkie, and it was impossible to imagine him in any other profession. I figured he would be the last journalist standing, the one who turned out the lights in the newsroom and unplugged the coffeemaker on his way out. But he was happily and successfully involved in a new endeavor that was proving quite lucrative.

“Don’t you miss it?” I asked him, when he described leaving the newspaper he had served so enthusiastically.

“What I miss doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

I’ve recalled his words many times over the last couple of years as more and more newspapers cut their staffs and more and more veteran journalists leave a profession they love. It’s tough on the individuals who are leaving and tough on the colleagues they leave behind.

But there’s a lot more at stake – the quality of the news and information available to the public.

And there’s a lot more that walks out the door with the seasoned, dedicated journalists who depart with their children’s pictures, their African violets and their severance pay. There’s experience, expertise, commitment, savvy, integrity, institutional knowledge, judgment, a strong work ethic and the deep-seated conviction that it matters that you get it right.

It can be a tough sell, trying to garner sympathy for journalists; for many, doing a good job does not always mean being warm and fuzzy. But the work they do impacts all citizens – whether or not they bother to read newspapers or watch TV news or tune in to a radio newscast or check the internet. Good journalism keeps the public’s business in the public eye. It provides an important check on those in power, and it contributes to an informed, intelligent citizenry.

Of course, “the media” is everybody’s favorite punching bag. Complaining about “the media” is so pervasive that it rarely is prompted by anything other than a generalized frustration and a need to find someone at fault for whatever happens to be irritating the complainer.

I’ve even heard media people complain about “the media,” which really drives me crazy. It’s a simplistic indictment that is meaningless because it lumps everybody together: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, the National Enquirer, some anonymous pajama-wearing blogger working out of his bedroom who couldn’t report a story if his life depended on it and for whom the concept of fact-checking is utterly foreign.

There’s the media and then, unfortunately, there’s the media.

At last summer’s awards banquet for the Atlanta Press Club and the Society for Professional Journalists, the guest speaker, XM Satellite Radio’s Bob Edwards, began somberly by acknowledging the latest rounds of staff reductions that had just been announced for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution – and talked about the cuts that are ravaging newsrooms across the country, even at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Edwards said he worries about what isn’t going to be covered – the investigative stories that won’t get done, the kind of serious reporting projects that take weeks or months to develop. Those are more expensive and more time-consuming than just sending someone to cover the city council meeting or getting a quick quote from a public official.

It was certainly hard to miss the irony that one of the evening’s top awards, the Press Club’s Journalist of the Year, was presented jointly to two AJC reporters, Alan Judd and Andy Miller, for their stunning investigative series, “A Hidden Shame,” that looked at deaths in the state’s mental health facilities. That is exactly the kind of reporting that is probably most threatened by the round of newspaper cuts and layoffs in Atlanta and elsewhere.

I really do get the economics of it all – I understand that newspapers everywhere are losing money, advertising, subscribers. The landscape is changing. The business models newspapers have been using are outdated; some sort of shakeout is inevitable. I understand that print journalism everywhere is still trying to figure out the internet.

But the people who were asleep at the switch were not typically the folks in the newsroom. Newspapers are not in trouble because somebody bobbled the statehouse coverage or wrote bad headlines.

This is clearly a period of transition, and a tough one. If there’s a good way to figure out the right sort of changes to make and the formula for making them effectively and humanely, nobody seems to have come up with it yet.



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