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Thursday, August 29, 2013

No country for old journalists

The resignation of Kevin Woster and Mary Carrigan from the Rapid City Journal has caused a buzz in the South Dakota Internet social media. (I have spent the last month on duties in other parts of the world and have been able to read but not write much.)  The loss of journalists of their caliber further weakens the possibility of democracy in a state which reserves the privileges of that form of government for those who need groups of people to malign and suppress.

Journalism in the U.S. is in a state of flux, as the established print media are losing advertisers and audience to the Internet and cable news media. The Woster-Carrigan resignations occurred in a context of puzzled expectation nationally as Jeff Bezos, the founder and leader of, purchases one of the icons of American journalism, the Washington Post. The Post has been struggling financially for some years, and has floundered journalistically as it has tried to compete with the electronic media. It hasn’t done well, and journalists wonder if Bezos will make authentic journalism possible in some way or will further transform the news organization into a marketing device.

For months the Koch brothers have shown an interest in acquiring the Chicago Tribune media chain, but last week their spokesperson announced that their interest was withdrawn.  However, they are eying other media opportunities.  

Journalistic doldrums are not new to South Dakota. In the mid-1980s when the first mustering of computer networks was attempted, a bunch of professors on the northern plains put together a Northwest Database. One of its features was a journalism review which was largely contributed to and edited by working journalists. Their consensus was that South Dakota, along with five or six other states, had the worst press in the nation. The consensus was that news selection and editorial emphasis was guided by politics, not any interest in providing readers and viewers complete information about their state.

The recent resignations caused a flurry of blog commentary and speculations about journalism in South Dakota. There was the usual call for bloggers to assume the role of journalists. A large but minority group of people recognize the need for news media which tends to the reporting of facts rather the scurrilous exchanges which the larger audience prefers to hard news.  Sometimes journalistic need can shape the media.

I think of two occasions which spawned impressive journalistic alternatives. The late Sen. Paul Powell when he was a young journalist realized that downstate Illinois was as corrupt as Chicago, but the major newspapers focused almost entirely on Chicago stories. He purchased and coordinated a number of weeklies, consolidated their printing shops to reduce expenses, and ran stories which exposed the corruption, resulted in some reforms, and earned a bunch of awards for his newspapers.

In South Dakota, when SD Public Radio in the early 1980s decided to intensify its news coverage, it hired Mike Marek away from KKAA in Aberdeen. Mike produced an hour-long news show at noon for SDPR that covered state news, but also included stories contributed by radio reporters throughout the state on county and small town government and events. In journalistic circles, it was considered a genuine achievement in providing an accurate daily summary of anything of significance going on in the state. The problem was that the general public was not particularly interested in such extensive reporting. The trend was drifting toward the chatter and bickering that makes up cable, radio, and Internet news for the most part now.

The legacy media has not only been hurt by the Internet and the Great Recession; the nature of the news audience has changed. The emphasis in education as evidenced by the mass testing madness and curriculum revision has resulted in a growing population whose literacy extends only to the rudimentary acts of reading and writing required for low-paying jobs.  Or possibly high-paying jobs if an employee displays a sufficient thralldom to the people paying him or her.  There is a declining number of people who recognize or care for writing that is denotatively precise and accurate and connotatively inclusive and informing. Consequently, there is not a consumer base for skillfully presented news that can sustain a news medium devoted to reporting. 

 In fact, there is a growing audience that resents and resists actual news reporting. A few nights ago I happened on a conservative religious radio station in Illinois for which one of my uncles provided the land upon which it was built. A man was ranting that all news personnel were trained in liberal institutions and, therefore, presented news with a liberal slant.  The accusations that universities teach and news media report from a liberal slant is one of the dearly held fallacies of the right wing.  It is part of the mindset that denies science and any other human endeavor that involves facts.  The academic and journalistic professions stem from the liberal fundamental of investigating and testing matters of fact and of speaking freely in the process.  

The conservative charge of liberal bias is largely based upon the fact that the conservative dogma is not being preached, not that there is a definable liberal policy that is being presented.  Editorials aside, genuine journalism and scholarship are not generated by any political ideology.  Real journalists and academics are merely practicing the disciplines of their professions.  

Kevin Woster has provided a shrewd insight into what ails newspapers.  

The sheer insanity and anti-intellectualism that issues from the conservative movement today evidences the motive that drives the movement.  There are no William Buckleys in today's right wing to elevate the political conversation above the idle and uninformed chatter of the tavern.

There are a few blogs which deal scrupulously with facts in presenting their opinions.  But most blogs shape the facts to fit their opinions and motives, which are too often born of malice.  

Blogging is not journalism. In its decade or so of history, it has demonstrated that overwhelmingly to the be the case.  

An aspect that public opinion researchers are just beginning to confront is that when news organizations invited comments on the stories they published,  the public trust and credibility suffered immensely.  At one time a commentary by a member of the general public had to be earned by integrity, an earnest interest in accuracy and fairness, and by sound writing.

Under the current curriculum emphasis being imposed on our public schools,  no one is being trained to fufill those standards. 

When news organizations in Chicago laid off many reporters,  some of them participated in a news blog just to keep in practice of their profession.  Real journalism may well become a non-paying avocation.  What that means for the country is portentous.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States