Few folks are as good at wringing their hands as journalists. For evidence, find former Salt Lake Tribune reporter Matthew LaPlante’s Facebook page and read the July 17, 2013, microdrama discussion behind a “rumor” about polygamist Rulon Jeffs recently published on the Trib’s blog. Was that rumor news or wasn’t it? Wring, wring, wring. Blogging has lowered the bar for news-gatherers. Wring, wring, wring. The rules have changed. Wring, wring—wrong.
Print journalists, for my money, remain the last of a dying breed of news-gatherer who is actually committed to truth, fairness and exposure of all things evil. Plenty of people wear the banner of “journalist,” but few actually are. For the record, I am not a journalist. I’m a smartass.
Broadcast news reporters? Yeah, journalists, especially if they do more than mispronounce the names of drive-by-shooting victims, and especially if they can conceive, develop and broadcast an engaging story about drive-by shootings that bypasses the cliché of setting the frame of that story by broadcasting from the stoop of a neighborhood bodega. Alas, broadcast news is full of lazy visual clichés.
But, at least there are a fair number of TV broadcast journalists left. The same isn’t so of radio. When I was younger, before FM radio, all the AM stations aired news broadcasts. I know this because when we heard the words, “Now for today’s top headlines,” it was our signal to change the station. But today, there are, what—four, maybe five—locals who make their living as radio news reporters? In the past several decades, radio news budgets suffered more cuts than a spring lamb on a Greek Easter rotisserie.
And now comes the Internet. Remember how the Internet promised the coming of a new day, the age of the true “citizen journalist”? What a bunch of hooey that turned out to be! Read the reader comments on nearly any website and you’ll quickly realize how deep the crap has piled up. Many blogs are little more than vehicles to spread self-promotion or lies. Legit bloggers are lost in the madness. We are dumber than ever.
If asked the question, “Where do you get your news?”, I’d probably answer, “From the Internet.” It’s fair to say that it soon will be—if it’s not already—that the vast majority of us will say we get our news from the Internet.
But that’s a loaded question, and one that newspapers particularly (and more particularly, the dastardly dailies), have failed to grasp. In the mid 1990s, we had a sales rep at City Weekly named Patti Stith. She kicked ass. She still does, but in radio. Good for her. One day, we were talking (and probably drinking heavily) about how we could sell better against radio or TV. We were talking about word of mouth, the Yellow Pages and the like, and the topic of customer surveys came up—lots of merchants conduct silly Q&As of their customers to see where they came from. And then they promptly ignore them, which is smart, because they’re basically useless anyway. On each of those was a question usually framed something like, “Where did you hear about us?”
And Patti wisely pointed out that you never “hear” a newspaper. We were in the back seat from the get-go. So, we figured out a way to sell around that loaded question and all the misperceptions that come along with it. We began to tell our reps to teach the merchants to watch our papers disappear from the news racks inside their places of business. We taught them to watch how people read a newspaper while waiting for their lunch. We taught them not to question how people got to their place of business, but to question why others did not. It worked. And still does.
Today, newspapers face another challenge, one that is not dissimilar. There is little doubt that in the history of American journalism, newspapers did the heavy lifting when it came to producing pure journalism, with decades of awards and accolades to prove it. Yet, somewhere along the way, newspaper journalists began to care less about being forced to share the journalism stage with folks from other media who simply reproduced their journalism, or were second to the story. It was arrogance. It’s happening again. Newspapers do the heavy lifting, yet suffer from the distinction of not faring well in the category question of “Where do you get your news?”
I was at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in Miami recently. In one session, some overpaid guy from Google or something similar asked the audience, “Is anyone here doing digital?” Huh? In the words of my good friend Dan Brentel, a Bingham Canyon native and Vietnam Green Beret, we were doing digital while Mr. Google was still “shittin’ yellow.” The guy clearly has been doing digital. He was wired and proud of it. So much so that he was clueless that myself and everyone else in the room had been “doing digital” for more than a decade. Which means to me that, despite all that wired-ness and despite all the news he has access to, he hasn’t learned very much.
As a clincher, he touted that the world learned of the uprisings in Egypt on Twitter. And we need to be on Twitter. Jeeezzzus! So, I bet that guy next to me that the Google boy couldn’t find Egypt on a map, had never before seen Cairo in a sentence, and wouldn’t know Mohamed Morsi from Muhammad Ali. The guy—the world, really—is making a big mistake thinking that the words “news” and “journalism” are synonymous.
And newspapers will make a bigger one if they continue to think so, too.