Mainstream news media: not dead yet

To survive in the Digital Age, journalism needs to be simultaneously fast-paced and substantive, snarky and thought-provoking. Or, at the very least, it must find some middle ground where illuminating investigative pieces and Mel Gibson telephone call mash-ups can coexist.

If the past couple of weeks are any indication, mainstream media may be primed for a comeback.

In July, The Washington Post published its massive “Top Secret America” series, painstakingly detailing the growth of the US intelligence community after 9/11. When it ran, New York Observer editor Kyle Pope crowed (on Twitter, ironically), “Show me the bloggers who could have done this!”

The Los Angeles Times recently mobilized a community to action when it broke the news that top city officials in Bell, Calif., one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, were raking in annual salaries ranging from $100,000 to $800,000.

Clearly, if mainstream media is an aging fighter against the ropes, it still has a few punches left to throw. But such make-a-difference journalism requires lots of time and money, something most news outlets don’t have. And it runs counter to the frantic pace of modern, Web-driven newsrooms.

Snarky and thought-provoking

So for journalism to survive in the Digital Age, it needs to be simultaneously fast-paced and substantive, snarky and thought-provoking.

Or, at the very least, it must find some middle ground where illuminating investigative pieces and Mel Gibson telephone call mash-ups can coexist.

The 24/7 newsroom has become an intractable part of the media landscape, and the Web is the primary battleground news outlets have to win in order to stay competitive.

That has forced journalists to become much more mindful of online traffic, which can sap morale. As a recent New York Times piece put it: “Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news – anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.”

Reporters need time for unglamorous work

But the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times pieces demonstrate that, regardless of whether the stories appear in print or online, reporters still need the time and space to be effective watchdogs – to track down sources and slog through the reams of financial disclosures, court documents, and election filings that often fill the better part of a journalist’s working life.

Right out of college, I spent several years working for a mid-size regional daily newspaper. I covered endless city and county government meetings, reported on crime and education, and learned that reporters should always carry a sensible pair of shoes in their car in case they are sent into the mountains to cover a wildfire. In my relatively short time in the newspaper trenches, I developed a profound respect for the people who do the decidedly unglamorous work of keeping government honest for little pay and even less job security.

The Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2010 report found that, while reported journalism is contracting and commentary and analysis is growing, 99 percent of the links on blogs circle back to the mainstream press. (Just four outlets – BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post – account for 80 percent of all links.)

The report concludes that new media are largely filled with debate that is dependent on the shrinking base of reporting coming from old media. The same report included polling data showing that 72 percent of Americans now feel that most news sources are biased in their coverage, and 70 percent feel overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information they’re taking in.

I’m not advocating a return to some supposed halcyon period before the Internet. I’m still a product of my generation. I like the alacrity of the Web and admire its ability to connect people around the world, and to aggregate and spread information at lightning speed. Its warming glow gives me probably 90 percent of the news I consume, and I enjoy commenting on articles that friends post on Facebook.

But I hope it won’t make me sound prematurely aged to say that sometimes the Internet exhausts me. That I’m troubled by how frequently I find myself sucked into the blogging vortex of endless linkage, circuitous kvetching, and petty media infighting. I often emerge from these binges hours later, bleary-eyed and less informed than when I started.

Best of both worlds

The media need to be quick and smart. They should tell us something new, rather than simply recycle outrage. Some of the watchdog role has been shouldered by nonprofit outfits like the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica – which has recruited a number of top investigative reporters with a mission of producing journalism in the public interest – as well as smaller nonprofit ventures springing up around the country.

Many old-school media outlets are moving, with varying degrees of success and profitability, toward a primarily Web-focused model. The “Top Secret America” series may be the best example to date of a deeply reported piece that probably could not have been achieved without the resources and support of a major news operation, but which is also packaged appealingly for the Web.

All of this seems to indicate that, despite reported journalism’s painful contractions, a few small inroads are being made toward creating a new model for news. Solid reporting and thoughtful analysis shouldn’t be the sole province of a dying medium.

Meghan Lewit is a writer/editor in Los Angeles.

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