One of my most learned American friends crows about the death of journalism.
He seems to take delight in the supposed demise of my first profession, the one that has been my passion since youth.
He’s wrong, of course. But then, he lives in a country where opinion passes for news, and vast sums are spent on following the antics of celebrities.
In my friend’s home city, San Francisco, only one major daily newspaper remains. The dot.com demographic has helped make the city one of the most expensive in the world, so intellectual discourse hasn’t been confined to newsprint for a very long time. Still, I celebrate San Francisco’s intellectuals (thanks, Rebecca Solnit), still thriving in a culture that honors lively, anti-capitalism protest.
In my home city, Toronto, there are six major daily newspapers. Six anglo papers.
Since I worked for the largest Canadian paper for more than 20 years, I like to remind my friend of the worth of journalism. As a history teacher, he likes to remind me about the fall of empires.
I don’t share his pessimism about journalism, because I come from a culture where people hunger for news. In my culture, reading is almost as necessary as breathing.
The second-highest circulation paper in Toronto, a city of 2.8 million, is Metro, a tabloid with news bits from politics to sports.
Ride the subway in Toronto and watch how many people read this free paper. Scan; ride; recycle. It’s fast, just like the speed of commuters flooding downtown at rush hour. (Outlying cities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have a population of almost 3 million, so you can imagine the morning cram on public transit.)
As an idealistic print journalist in the past, I would have scorned such a “tab.” Yet as a traveler trying to remain calm amid the rush of commuters, I tasted Metro like a pre-breakfast appetizer, a morsel of news to whet my appetite for the grown-up papers I would buy once I fled overstuffed buses, streetcars and subways.
Consider that English isn’t the first language of many metro Toronto residents: The city claims 140 languages. Perhaps its many newcomers from all over the world — some from countries where journalism = death — helps explain support for independent journalism.
Toronto is a journalism researcher’s dream
Toronto is the stuff of journalism researchers’ dreams: What is it about a metropolitan area of almost 6 million that leads to so many big dailies? They range from an entertainment tabloid to more traditional papers.
My friend contends that dailies are dying, because that’s the American model. (I’ve learned in my adopted country that many can’t see beyond their own borders, no matter what the issue.)
It’s true that circulation is dropping, everywhere. But that public hunger for truth — are our politicians accountable? is government transparent? is the mayor corrupt? — is obviously alive and well in Toronto, as it is in any major city in the world.
Toronto is still the home of the only Canadian Pulitzer Prize — The Star’s Paul Watson beat the U.S. media at their own story in 1994, when he risked his life to follow a Mogadishu mob abusing the corpses of American soldiers. (Watson’s storied career, through almost every war zone on the planet, is one of the best cases for arguing about the health of journalism.)
My friend still watches TV news, and we lament the loss of good editors and producers influenced by corporate interests.
In my adopted country, where “corporations are people,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court, these people believe public airwaves are for to be used mostly for promoting their products — the same celebrities and the same movies, for instance, that are part of their corporate entertainment empires. (The longer I live here, the more I marvel at what passes for news on major networks.)
Yet international news is still hot. Big media corporations are still, thankfully, spending money on real journalists who risk a lot to tell the world about nuclear meltdown zones in Japan, tsunami-stricken countries, political unrest everywhere (except, sadly, Africa), and war-ravaged regions.
As long as the U.S. is at war anywhere, there will always be media money for coverage. As a former foreign correspondent, I might argue with ways and means of that reporting, but at least we still get seasoned, well-informed journalists delivering real reports, online, on-air and in print. (Don’t get me started on underpaid, uninsured freelancers covering war zones for wealthy media owners!)
Despite the closing of international bureaus everywhere, there is still a craving for news from North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, and more. Witness the Arab Spring and its social media coverage, especially. Witness the popularity of Al Jazeera in the West.
We, the people, still want accurate, fair, and responsible reporting. An intern embedded with troops in Afghanistan will deliver one type of coverage, NBC’s Richard Engel will deliver another. My friend and I agree on which is more valuable, but we don’t argue on the necessity of honest news-gathering.
With the death of Time magazine, I imagine my friend will have more fodder for his arguments about the end of journalism.
As a blogger and online publisher, I always counter that journalism is thriving — the old-school media model isn’t keeping pace.
Wall St. is celebrating the reworking of TIME magazine, however that shakes out, so the embrace of digital media continues, despite its threat of fewer ads and lower wages for journalists.
Celebrating David Wood’s coverage of war-wounded
“No one makes money online,” an American editor complained to me recently.
Guess he forgot that Huffington Post sold for more than $300 million or perhaps he didn’t care that the often-maligned online publication won a Pulitzer Prize last year for David Wood’s excellent coverage of war-wounded. Wood is an old-school journalist showing how real reporting is still celebrated by online readers, and journalism peers.
As a rehabilitation counselor who specializes in working with Afghanistan and Iraq war returnees, I am grateful for Wood’s courage. The publication of his 10-part series gives me hope, not only for journalism but for public responsibility for veterans’ long-term care.
(Did Huffington Post sell any more ads to justify its publication of that series? Do we care?)
I haven’t met Wood. I don’t know if he makes the same money or has the same benefits as he did at past jobs in journalism. But I celebrate his work as an example of how journalism is still accomplishing its best — informing and provoking readers in the name of social justice — in a business model that still confounds old media giants.
When anyone suggests journalism is lagging, I point to the Orange County Register and its hiring of dozens of new reporters, especially for investigative journalism.
(Ask The Star if investigative journalism sells, in print and online. Old-fashioned reporting, the kind that demands professional research and writing — the honest stuff — explains why journalists and photographers there continue to win so many national and international awards. Follow Olivia Ward‘s career, for proof.)
As someone with fingers still in digital and print journalism, I suggest that Aaron Kushner’s scheme for appealing to subscribers first (gotta’ love American idealism) is a business model that other media giants should heed.
Foreign Affairs and all the U.S. magazines worth reading are still finding their way in a digital world, but I challenge my friend to read a single issue and continue to pronounce the death of journalism.
Two words today to prove public demand for professional reporting: North Korea.
I’m grateful for our ongoing, often very heated, debates about the death of journalism. Don’t imagine that I’ll be convinced.