The State of Journalism: We're Killin' All the Bees

Where does content come from, Mommy? Well, sweetheart, the Content Fairy comes at night and sprinkles content over all the good little Web sites.

Yeah, right.

I knew journalism was in trouble the first time I heard that word, "content." Up until then, I was a reporter, writing stories, getting the news out, telling truth to power, tilting at dragons, righting the occasional wrong, sometimes misquoting someone - you know, all the usual stuff.

Then, all of a sudden, I was a "content provider." It was just like when "sales" (which had a human component - after all, you have to sell to someone) turned into the impersonal "marketing."

I believe that journalism is a calling. It's like teaching, healing and entering a convent.

Maybe us nascent journalists start out as gossips or tattletales in high school, but the best of us evolve into reporters who can spot interesting changes in the social fabric a mile away, do the research, digest a lot of complicated information, and write it clearly and concisely.

"We weren't missionaries," wrote Michael Miner recently in The Chicago Reader. "The world as we understood it consisted of those who thanked God for a free press and those who desperately wanted it."

The instinct to get the word out is deeply imbedded. Think of Thomas Paine or Paul Revere if you don't believe me.

I happened to be in Prague in 1969, just after Prague Spring ended and the Russian tanks had rolled through town. One of the first things I was handed was a samizat (underground) paper. It had been printed on a mimeograph machine and was smeared with fingerprints. It was dangerous to hold and criminal to put out. But people were risking their lives for it, because it told the truth.

The same thing is happening with the Iraq war, the most dangerous war of all times for journalists. Three times as many journalists - more than 200, so far - have been killed in Iraq than in both world wars.

Would I risk my life reporting "content"? I could just as easily write out recipes for five meals that cost under $5. Or interview Lindsay Lohan.

This is a dark time for journalism, because newspapers are eating their young. (I'm leaving out television news here, which went over to the dark side a long time ago. "Nine restaurants with rats! Film at 11.")

The ad revenue which supports news gathering organizations is fleeing to the Internet. The large corporations which own most newspapers are freaking out. The dirty secret of newspapering is they've been gold mines. When you hear scare stories about lost revenues, you have to remember that with newspapers, a daily 25-35 percent profit margin used to be the norm. In a world where most of us would see a 10 percent profit as an improvement, it's hard to feel sorry for the magnates. Especially when the first thing they do after a bad quarter is to cut their staff, thus lessening their ability to gather the news. In the immortal words of Joe Strummer, "If you're after getting the honey, then you don't go killing all the bees."

Another reason journalism is under attack is the cult of the amateur, especially on the Web. It has a number of names, including citizen journalism and crowdsourcing, but it usually means that people contribute content for free. This is a business model much beloved by site owners, but not by journalists, who need to be paid.

The Internet is a godsend for breaking news, and it can certainly send a thought or image around the world in seconds. I've noticed that many citizen journalists are real journalists who haven't discovered that they have a calling yet. On the down side, there's too much gossip, snark, glitz, rehash and slander

People like to sneer at the mainstream media, and during the buildup to the Iraq war, contempt was richly deserved. But isn't it just a sign of how important reporting is when we're all screaming for newspapers to tell the truth?

It's a truism that there's a contrarian impulse in human nature. We fight against authority and institutions. If we're smart, we want to change them. We shouldn't want them to disappear. Take away The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and there wouldn't be much to talk about on the Web. Very few blogs are doing original reporting, although there are some very good sites.

Just as you wouldn't want a citizen surgeon to do your open-heart surgery, or a citizen plumber to fix your toilet, professional reporters and editors are necessary. Good reporting costs money, sometimes a lot of money. Think about how many millions of dollars it costs the Times to keep its Baghdad bureau running.

Unlike medicine or the building trades, there's no certification process to become a journalist. One of the great things is that anyone can be one. But in terms of a calling, it's a lot like the priesthood. You take a vow of poverty, you are obedient to a higher power, you have a strict code of ethics, and there are a lot of rules. Of course, unlike the priesthood, you can have sex. But that might not be a good idea, since you probably can't afford to raise a family.

This is a warning. We're perilously close to losing something precious, something many people have died for, and something many more people yearn for. We may be fulfilling Joe Strummer's prophecy: "You came to skim off the honey, baby, and you had to go killin' all the bees."

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