Journalism is down, but hardly out

March 17, 2009

The boss’ email popped into my BlackBerry just as the smiling young lady walked into the school office to escort me to her journalism class. I would have to read it later.

I spent the next hour talking with the smart, engaged students who produce The Lamplighter at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. They wanted to discuss ways to make their monthly newspaper more interesting, relevant, inclusive and professional. I had a wonderful time.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I read the boss’ email. It was an update on the latest round of job cuts at the Herald-Leader, which will be announced soon. It also said that, for the first time, most of those who keep their jobs will have their pay cut.

I was glad the high school students didn’t want to talk about the future of journalism, because adults ask me about it all the time. They hear about the Rocky Mountain News closing and the San Francisco Chronicle on the brink and they ask, “What’s happening to newspapers? Will the Herald-Leader survive?”

It’s complicated, I tell them. It has to do with changes in the economy, technology and the ways people communicate. Nobody knows how it will all turn out.

The irony, I tell them, is that there has never been a bigger audience for Herald-Leader journalism. Print circulation has slipped, but online readership has soared.

The Herald-Leader staff’s work is no longer confined to once-a-day, regionally distributed ink on paper. We now report news and tell stories instantly to a worldwide audience with as much copy, photos, audio and video as we can produce.

What’s more, readers comment on stories as soon as they’re published online, offering additional information, corrections and their own views. It has made journalism better and more interesting.

But as technology has changed the way journalism works, it also has changed the way advertising works. That has dramatically changed the news media’s business model.

You see, the money to pay for journalism has never come from journalism; it has always come from advertising. Companies now have more ways to advertise and, in a bad economy, less money to do it with.

That means revenues have fallen for newspapers, radio and TV stations. Online advertising isn’t as profitable as with print or broadcast. Online ad revenues are growing, but not fast enough to make up the difference.

Blogs, social networking and video-distribution Web sites have given everyone a voice, and that’s great. But journalistic reporting and commentary have been swept up into a larger universe of “media” that has blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment, marketing and advocacy.

Much popular “journalism” these days isn’t journalism at all; it’s show business, more focused on maximizing profit than in seeking truth, informing the public or promoting healthy discussion.

Take, for example, Fox News Channel’s flag-waving, rah-rah coverage of the Iraq War, or the CNBC “personalities” who touted stocks and glorified CEOs rather than doing in-depth reporting and skeptical analysis.

It’s no wonder people are confused, because journalists haven’t done much to expose these frauds or explain journalism’s values to the public. It’s sad that some of the best media criticism lately has come not from journalists but from a comedian — The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

A decade ago, the Herald-Leader’s news staff stopped growing and started shrinking.

The same thing happened at radio and television stations. Lexington TV news has largely abandoned public affairs reporting to focus on crime, tragedy, sports and weather. There’s precious little reporting on commercial radio anymore; it’s all “talk.”

WVLK still has talk show hosts who discuss local issues, often based on the Herald-Leader’s reporting, but WLAP seems to have redefined its mission as right-wing political advocacy.

When people ask me if this newspaper will survive, I tell them I’m confident it will. The Herald-Leader remains profitable because no other advertising vehicle in this market comes close to its reach. As long as it has the journalistic muscle to be a must-read for Kentucky’s engaged citizens, it will maintain that reach. As the economy improves, advertising will return.

Much of the Herald-Leader’s current financial squeeze is the result of debt the newspaper’s parent, The McClatchy Co., took on a couple of years ago to buy its previous owner, Knight Ridder. I can’t complain; I welcomed the McClatchy deal.

Some people think local media ownership is always best, but I’m old enough to remember when the Herald and Leader were locally owned — and not very good. Outside ownership has some disadvantages, but it also can insulate journalism from powerful local interests and protect a news organization’s credibility.

I’m proud of the Herald-Leader. Reports about wasteful spending at Blue Grass Airport are the latest of many examples of local public-service journalism you won’t find anywhere else. I expect that work will continue, even with fewer people left to do it.

Newspapers aren’t about the paper, they’re about the news. As the old sayings go, good newspapers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, print the news and raise hell. They celebrate success, shine a light on problems and hold government accountable to the public. They tell a community’s stories, and they provide informed commentary that sparks public discussion and makes democracy possible.

Good journalism is too important to disappear. So what’s the new business model to support it? I don’t know, but I’m confident somebody will figure it out. I’m also confident there will be plenty of young people — at Dunbar High School and elsewhere — with the intelligence and commitment to do the work.

The national perspective

The Pew Research Center puts together an annual State of the News Media report. The latest report was published his week. Click here to read it.

Teach students responsibility — and freedom

February 19, 2009

Kentucky legislators always say they like to improve education and protect freedom. A bill before the House of Representatives would let them do both, and it was inspired by a 20-year-old college sophomore.

House Bill 43 would restore rights that high school students lost in 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that freedom of the press doesn’t apply to them. Since then, school administrators have been able to censor student media for any reason. They also can punish student journalists who write things they don’t like, as well as teachers who let it happen.

Rep. Brent Yonts, a Greenville Democrat, is sponsoring the bill, which is now before the House Education Committee. Seven other states have passed similar laws, and bills are pending in Connecticut and Washington.

Yonts filed the bill at the request of a constituent, Josh Moore of Greenville, who is studying journalism at Western Kentucky University. Moore has created a Web site to promote it:

Moore said he had a good relationship with the principal when he was editor of the student newspaper at Muhlenberg South High School. But he knew others elsewhere weren’t so lucky. He also knew that student journalists didn’t pursue some good stories because they had no rights and their teachers had no protection.

It’s a big problem nationally, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. His group gets 500 calls a year about high school media censorship, and he thinks many more cases are never reported because students and teachers have little recourse.

“Many principals want the student newspaper to really be a public relations arm of the school or school district,” said David Greer of the Kentucky Press Association, which strongly supports the bill. “They don’t want any serious reporting. They don’t want anything that might be controversial.”

Moore stresses that his bill wouldn’t prevent principals from reviewing student media before publication. It also wouldn’t stop them from censoring content that is libelous, disruptive, encourages disobeying the law or school rules or amounts to an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The bill would require schools to adopt written policies governing student expression, and it would keep school officials from being held legally liable for student media content. It also would protect teachers from being “terminated, transferred, removed or otherwise disciplined for refusing to suppress the protected expression of student journalists.”

LoMonte said one of the biggest objections school administrators raise to giving student journalists more freedom — the fear of lawsuits — is unfounded.

“There are exactly zero published court decisions in the history of the United States in which a K-12 public school has been held financially liable for injury inflicted by a student publication — zero,” he said. “Athletic teams are by far a greater source of litigation, and yet no one proposes to switch to two-hand touch football because football injuries provoke lawsuits.”

The Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling reversed a 1969 decision that gave high school students the same freedoms and responsibilities as other journalists.

That was the law in 1975-76, when I was editor of the Lafayette Times at Lexington’s Lafayette High School. We had a pretty feisty newspaper, and I’m sure the principal didn’t like some of the things we wrote. But he never tried to censor us — or even complained.

To see if my memory was correct, I called him Thursday.

“I don’t recall anything coming out that caused any trouble,” said Dwight Price, who retired in 1987 after 15 years as Lafayette’s principal. “I think students need freedom and they need creativity. … Most kids today are level-headed.”

Price said the key to good, responsible student journalism is appointing good teachers with some journalism training to oversee it. That’s certainly what he had in my high school newspaper’s adviser, Julie Dodd, who later earned a Ph.D. and has taught journalism at the University of Florida for many years.

“Time and time again you see teachers without any journalism training … They don’t know what their rights and responsibilities are,” said Greer, who administers the Kentucky High School Journalism Association, which the press association started a dozen years ago and has 103 member schools.

Moore thinks that giving more freedom and protection to students and teachers would create a framework for improving journalism education in high schools. “This is a way of putting it in a structured environment where they could teach students what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “It helps the educational process.”

The educational process is what it’s about.

High school media doesn’t exist to train future journalists so much as to train future citizens. In a world awash in information, citizens need to know how to tell good journalism from bad, truth from propaganda, substance from fluff. That requires training — and freedom. And it’s an area where Kentucky can lead the way.