Journalism Under Siege

 

You won’t be able to read Randy’s column anymore in the Sunday Hawk Eye. Management didn’t cotton to this submission, spiked it and let him know there won’t be space for him anymore. That’s The Hawk Eye’s loss — and ours. With Randy’s permission, here it is.

— dla

randy_miller

JOURNALISM UNDER SIEGE

By Randy Miller

“Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.”
— Kofi Annan

Late last week, The New Yorker ran a story titled “Does journalism have a future?” That follows by several weeks the naming of journalists worldwide as the “Person of the Year” by Time magazine, a truly thoughtful and insightful choice.

I, too, fear for the future of those in my chosen profession. With our president calling any news outlet that publishes anything that portrays him in an unfavorable light “fake news” and “enemy of the people” and the proliferation of truly fake news on social media sites, is there still a place in the world for true journalists?

The New Yorker piece notes that “between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting, 500 or so daily newspapers went out of business; the rest cut news coverage, or shrank the paper’s size, or stopped producing a print edition, or did all of that, and it still wasn’t enough.”

The piece mostly covers the changes wrought by online media, like the Huffington Post and Brietbart News and BuzzFeed News, and their impact on large daily newspapers, but notes offhandedly that local papers through the years have often produced the best shoe leather journalists who went on to bigger and better jobs with the larger publications. That pipeline is drying up.
Ironically, since the president began calling the big national media companies “enemies of the people” most have seen a surge in readership and subscriptions, notably The New York Times. So there’s another of the president’s lies exposed when he repeatedly Tweets “the failing NYT.” No, it’s not failing. Saying it doesn’t make it so.

Attempting to control and demean traditional news sources is straight out of the playbook of autocratic rulers around the world, including Vladimir Putin in Russia. Control the message and you control the people. It’s that simple.
So we now have an autocratic president who lies about as often as he takes a breath. If this president isn’t removed from office soon, it will only get worse.

Americans today are inundated with media of all kinds and thus are becoming increasingly skeptical of all sources of information, which is bad for traditional journalists who are still committed to fact checking and obtaining their information from reliable sources.

Meanwhile, the more disturbing trend is that of big media companies buying up newspapers around the country and milking them for profits. Most could care less about covering the local communities they serve.

This newspaper is a good example. When I retired three years ago, there were more than 90 full-time employees with benefits on staff. Today, there are less than half that number, just two years after the paper was bought by Gatehouse Media. Do the math on how much that is saving the company.

Several rounds of buyouts and layoffs have decimated the staff. The newsroom had 24 full-time employees, as well as a host of part-timers, when I retired. That included four dayside editors, four nightside editors and six full-time reporters.

Today, there are eight full-timers in the newsroom, including two editors and two reporters, who also fill in on desk duties when needed. Although they make a valiant effort every day, there is no way they can adequately cover southeast Iowa and west-central Illinois with such limited resources.

I’m told they have hired another reporter who will begin work soon, but that’s putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

As city editor, I often took random complaint calls from the public about something we covered or didn’t cover. Even fully staffed, we couldn’t be everywhere all the time. So I can’t imagine how many complaint calls they’re getting now.

In its Person of the Year edition, Time noted that 52 journalists were killed worldwide last year just for doing their jobs, the most notable Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government, a truly atrocious act.

The cover photo of the edition featured the remaining news staff at the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland. Five of their colleagues were shot and killed by a crazed shooter who walked into their newsroom one day and opened fire. Amazingly, they still put out a paper the following day.

So the question is, does journalism have a future? It damn well better have. Press freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a reason. It is essential to a functioning democracy.

But true journalism is under siege today, attacked by fringe elements on both the right and left, by fake news sites online, and by our current president. Reporting and commenting on news of the day is an evolving process, and especially so these days. But good journalism still matters, perhaps more so today than any time in recent memory.

Journalists know that on a daily basis they are going to get more criticism than praise for what they do. It’s just the nature of the job. So if you know a reporter or editor, regardless of the size of publication they work for, like veterans, thank them for doing their jobs to keep the public informed. What they do every day is that important.

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