Friday, September 16, 2011

Start-up Journal: The Mission of Journalists.

When buyouts were announced by the company that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, a City Paper reporter contacted me for insight. This is what I told him:

This scares the shit out of me. Losing more journalists hurts the city. Really. As more and more reporters disappear, less and less gets covered. That means the bulk of journalists in the city wind up reacting to events like fires, murders and other tragedies.

That means the reputation of the city, which is very much influenced by the news media, will be as a place where people get killed on the streets constantly, our sports fans are disgusting people who barf on little kids and our politicians are all corrupt. Some of that is true but there is so much more in Philadelphia that 95 percent of the viewing/ listening/ reading audiences will never know about.

Fewer and fewer journalists have the time to go in depth into stories, or even be proactive about stuff. We don't have a lot of professional reporters roaming the streets, learning about folks in neighborhoods.

There are people here in Philadelphia doing amazing things, who never get any coverage because there aren't enough reporters with audiences finding those people.

The Internet has been great for developing grassroots info systems. But those operations reach small audiences, and they are usually under-funded. They can only do so much.

Our large, mainstream media rely upon celebrities, tragedies/ controversies and sports to draw audiences. And it's only going to get worse now.

He wrote back and asked about the future of the local media landscape. I said:

The two newspapers are at the bone now. They've been losing staff for a long time (I took the buyout from the DN in December 2005). Their ability to be anything near comprehensive has been compromised for more than a decade. Probably a lot longer.

Regional newspapers are in tough spots. They try to speak in a familiar voice to a wide range of people - from the Jersey shore to the western suburbs, in the Inquirer's case. But the Inquirer can't cover that much range in a satisfactory way.

So there is a disconnect between the audience and the journalists.

These days, people want information that directly impacts them.

The future of the local media landscape? Honestly, I think the Inquirer and DN will continue to drop in circulation and ad revenue. I think local TV will continue with coverage of reactionary stuff, with emphasis on sports, crime and weather (ugh). And audiences will continue to drift away.

They'll find info online, or in random publications. But they'll have to seek it on their own. And that means many people will never learn about important issues that could have a direct impact on their lives.

The William Penn/ Temple deal
is tasked with helping journalists dig for that "important" journalism. I'm not involved with the process anymore but think about it - they first threw out their intentions with the program nearly two years ago. They could do great things with all that money but it could take a year before that operation is functional. Probably more.

He then asked whether the Daily News (where I worked for nearly 12 years; the image above was my last front page story for the paper, I think) was in better shape than the Inquirer. I said:

I think the DN covers a more specific region and has a more loyal readership (largely because of their sports coverage). I think that leaves the DN in better shape than the Inky.

When Amanda Bennett arrived at the Inquirer a while back, she said that she wanted to make the Inquirer the best regional newspaper in the country. She said she wanted the paper to back off national and international stories in favor of covering local stuff, developing news that people couldn't find anywhere else.

But the Inquirer was only a decade removed from their Pulitzer era, and conceding stuff to the wire services felt like defeat.

The future of journalism, for better or worse, is small and personal to the audience. There will always be a handful of national/ international operations - the NYTimes, Wash Post, etc. The Internet will continue to fragment audiences. And local newspapers, like the Inquirer, will need to figure out what their niche is in this demassified world.

This all connects to our magazine efforts, I think. We are building a financially sustainable journalistic product, one that informs as well as entertains. We are flashy enough to get attention but deep enough to be smart advocates for the city.

Even when we begin paying staff next year (fingers crossed), we won't be muckrakers. We don't have the time nor inclination to do that kind of work. Rather than document corporate or governmental malfeasance, we're doing a public service by highlighting local talent. We're trying to change the reputation of this great place: rather than make people think the city is a shithole where people are raped, killed and robbed constantly, we are showing that there is hope and talent in the city.

I'm not saying we are the future of journalism. But we are a part of it. Our mission is noble, our business is responsible and our product is solid.

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