On Changing Journalism
By Sydney Schanberg

With life on our planet spinning faster and faster on the electronic wings of the digital revolution, I have no simple answers.

There is no way to turn back the clock. The world has embraced the new technology, and as I see it, the craft of credible, serious journalism is in a state of chaos.

Money is at the heart of the issue. Papers have lost much of their advertising to the Internet, which so far has produced sparse original reporting considering the volume of websites, choosing instead to cherry-pick from newspapers without compensating them.

Also, Internet sites have decided that their audiences want shorter, splashier articles, not lengthy, detailed ones that often force governments and corporations to correct errant ways of dealing with the public.

Papers are disappearing into bankruptcy on a regular basis. Those that remain are struggling to find a business model that can still support in-depth reporting. The best journalism costs serious money. I'm referring to investigative journalism, which is especially costly because it can take months for a team of reporters to bring forth a solid, major story. In the past, these came almost entirely from a small number of major newspapers and a few magazines.

As newspapers and their staffs have shrunk, so has that special product, which is crucial for any healthy democracy based on a well-informed public. Those still standing have created their own websites to seek new advertising revenue, but the money gap has not closed. And the decline of credible journalism continues.

Good journalism does not have to be printed on paper. But the Internet has also spawned an endless 24/7 trail of garbage, which I call bits-and-pieces journalism -- "borrowed" or "aggregated" material from other sources, especially original stories from newspapers. Internet companies say that the material they use is in the public domain and therefore free.

So what can we do to repair this mess? It isn't just a case of a profession in decline but a dumbing down of an entire nation -- one that has considerable effect on the rest of the world.

The public does not hold journalists in high esteem largely because news outlets, including newspapers, have chosen over time to increase fluff stories about gossip, celebrities, sex scandals, etc., and mix them with hard news.

We were dumbing down the coverage before the Internet reared its head. If we want to restore a higher grade of journalism, we professionals will have to address the public and convince them that without serious reporting, they will not have the means to make informed decisions.

In the past, we have never explained ourselves well to the public. We resent it when citizens raise questions about our stories. As a profession we have been soft and have not challenged our publishers when they sought more fluff. If we want to rehabilitate professional journalism, restore foreign bureaus, raise newsroom standards, then we're in a fight -- on the Internet and at newspapers.

We would have to stand up and speak out. I don't know a silent, invisible way to get a task like this done.

Sydney Schanberg addresses the relationship between government and media in his new book, Beyond the Killing Fields, published by Potomac Books. This piece has been republished with permission - the original can be found here: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/07/08/beyond-the-killing-fields-why-journalism-is-in-a-state-of-ch/.

Sydney Schanberg is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose coverage of the fall of Cambodia to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975 for The New York Times became the basis of “The Killing Fields,” a 1984 film that won several Acadeny awards. In his fifty years as reporter, columnist, essayist and press critic, he focused on abuses of power, government corruption and special pprivileges for the powerful. His latest work is “Beyond The Killing Fields” (Potomac Books), a collection of his war writings that includes Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq – including a lengthy investigative piece about the hundreds of American prisoners who were never returned by Hanoi and finally abandoned by Washington.

 

 

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