former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Starving in a “news desert”

In Blog on September 15, 2014 at 11:15 am

I don’t know what depressed me more.  Columbia Journalism Review’s story on respected media outlets increasingly using contributors, often unpaid, to beef up their online content, or the fact that the journalists who read CJR haven’t bothered to comment on it.  Perhaps they’re too busy struggling to keep their own jobs.

The story’s author emphasized the need for editorial scrutiny of contributors’ content, more fact-checking and policing for any outrageous comments or errors.

But the story also reminded me that we are drowning in opinion and commentary, and starving for fact-based news analysis.  It’s like being surrounded by fast-food joints and unable to find a store selling fruits and vegetables.

Just as there are “food deserts” in America’s inner cities, we seem to be experiencing “news deserts” throughout the country.  There is work for journalists to do, but the people who own media outlets do not appear to value that work, or want to pay for it.

We have public policy debates that cry out for fact-based analysis.

Take, for example, the question whether an increase in the minimum wage increases kill jobs.  In most cases, journalists shrug, and quote an opponent and a proponent offering up different points of view.  But there are ways to find answers to these and other public policy questions.

You look to the experience of locales that have raised the minimum wage.   You seek data about higher wages and their impact on productivity and worker retention. You explore the minimum wage policies of other countries, particularly those that have had a history of high productivity.  You return to the public debate the last time the minimum wage was increased, and determine whether any of the predictions – good or ill – came true.

I was happy to see Dana Milbank use his column to explore some of these questions. But we’re still talking commentary, and a column can easily be discounted by those who disagree.  And even Milbank concedes that the column was not attempting to offer a definitive answer.

What we need is more explanatory journalism. I concede it is difficult to do, takes time and staff resources.  But that’s what differentiates journalism from most online opinion.

It’s been a long time since the Philadelphia Inquirer gave Donald Barlett and Jim Steele the time to explain why the American economy had failed average families.  Their 1991 series, “America: What Went Wrong” generated huge reader response.  In a pre-Internet era, the paper got requests for more than half a million reprints, and the stories were re-published in newspapers throughout the country.  When the series became a book, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list for eight months.

Barlett and Steele still practice journalism, now at Vanity Fair, their substantive pieces competing for readers’ attention along with stories about Jennifer Anniston, Jay Z and James Franco.  When they revisited the topic of their 1991 series in 2012, they collaborated with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.  Their work was published as a book, The Betrayal of the American Dream.

It had an impact, — also becoming a New York Times bestseller — but not the electrifying impact of the first series, which reached hundreds of thousands of average Americans, who valued newspapers because they provided them with information and analysis that made a difference in their lives.

And that’s the real tragedy.  Average citizens, struggling to make sense of the world, get so little assistance from the one profession that could help them better understand it.

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