Compelling Journalism Persists Despite Media's Business Struggle

Contrary to popular assumptions, or desires, American journalism isn't dead. It isn't even unwell. It's as good, and sometimes as great, as it's ever been.

I have on my desk three fresh examples. In "Final Salute" (Penguin Press), Jim Sheeler, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, followed the lives of several military families for a year or more after fathers, husbands, sons or brothers returned from Iraq in caskets. What the Pentagon has gone to such lengths to hide and the public has had no reason to follow beyond the ritual funerals, Sheeler unravels by documenting grief's infinite, private albums. In "Big Boy Rules" (Da Capo), The Washington Post's Steve Fainaru does the impossible. He details the lawbreaking and atrocities of mercenaries ("private security contractors," in polite company) in Iraq while humanizing them. One in particular, well known to many Floridians: Jon Cote, the young, popular University of Florida student who opted for a stint as a mercenary to pay debts and ended up working for a criminally negligent company, being taken hostage, and returning, a year-and-a-half later, in a box, headless. I never thought I'd feel that even mercenaries deserve a final salute. Then there's "The Forever War" (Knopf) by Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter whose work from Iraq and Afghanistan, epic in breadth and style, makes Ernie Pyle sound like any old "embed."

That's just a sampling of this year's crop of extraordinary journalism. What the reporters have in common, though, is news organizations that were willing to invest time and money in immense proportions to make the work possible. Now the Rocky Mountain News may close by January. The Times is slashing budgets and buying out reporters, or firing them outright. The Post is in a holding pattern.

Journalism may be healthy. The business of journalism, never the same thing, is sick, and often sickening. It's being hammered by a lousy economy (nothing new), a media landscape exploded by the Internet (totally new) and that old standard of the newspaper business: A greed for outsized profits that is only beginning to give way to more realistic, and responsible, expectations. No week goes by without the announcement of a news organization -- not just newspapers -- shutting bureaus, firing employees by the hundreds, going bankrupt, going up for sale (The News-Journal is in that last category but for more complicated reasons). So every time I get ready to write this column I wonder whether it'll be my last. At least I still have the luxury to worry about what, for thousands of others in the trade, is already fact. There's a lot of pretending, a lot of guessing, a great deal of flailing in search of a business model that works. No one knows what it'll be yet as well as what it won't be anymore. But we're seeing what grasping for the invisible is doing.

What's left of the great broadsheets and network newscasts makes you miss them less even as they vanish before your eyes. The Times feels as if it's on one of those low-calorie diets. It's getting slimmer, lighter, fluffier, its targeting of the six- and seven-figure set that ski-vacations north of the Polar Circle but still votes Democratic increasingly pronounced. The Wall Street Journal is being recreated in its new deity's image. Like Rupert Murdoch, it's now loud, sensational, in your face, attributes previously reserved for its editorial pages. The Los Angeles Times turned into a local gossip sheet just when it was becoming a must-read. Network news was never more than entertainment. But when you replace news anchors with nannies such as Katie Couric and Brian Williams, who treat the news as if it were an after-school special, it's not even entertaining anymore. No wonder the crazies on cable such as O'Reilly and Hannity are skimming off boatloads of network refugees for their audiences.

Several newspaper chains serving dozens of communities across the country are closing or shrinking their Washington bureaus, just as they are closing bureaus in their backyards. They're eliminating individual voices, perspectives and investigative eyes without which the marketplace of ideas becomes more like a company store: Everyone gets a scaled-down choice of news from scaled-down sources just when government needs more prying eyes, not fewer.

The clamor for more eyes is eerily absent. The idea of journalism itself is taking a beating from a public either unconcerned or cheering its collapse. Thank 30 years of ideological media-bashing for the indifference. There's plenty of anguish over losing GM or Chrysler, none at all, outside the industry, over losing entire news organizations. I'm not suggesting that a bailout is in order. There's no point in propping up an industry that doesn't know where it's going.

But let's not kid ourselves, either. You can have a democracy without a car industry. You can even have a strong economy without the press or democracy. That's China. But you cannot have a democracy of any kind without a vibrant press. No business model is worth that loss.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam