B A H j o u r n a l i s t

Brian Anthony Hernandez

7 journalists discuss their confidence in newspapers and journalism

Gallup survey results break down Americans' confidence in newspapers by age groups. Credit: Gallup

I recently tweeted this:

“GRAPHS & STATS | Age group with most confidence in #newspapers: 18- to 29-year-olds ► http://bit.ly/aUPctG Scroll down to see data in table.”

The Gallup survey results compelled me to analyze my confidence and prod my journalism friends about theirs. So, I asked them, “Why are we and why should we be confident in newspapers? Or why are we not confident? And beyond newspapers, why are we confident in journalism, including online media?”

Below, six friends – reporters, copy editors, designers from across the country – and I answer these questions as journalists and consumers of news in the 18- to 29-year-old age group.

EXCERPTS:

► “Despite all the prognosticators who say newspapers will die, I see in the explosion of online media just the opposite. So many of these places are aggregators of news that first appeared in newspapers. Without newspapers, online news sites and blogs would lack the oxygen to feed their attention-grabbing and occasionally profitable enterprises.”

► “To be frank, my confidence in newspapers is dwindling. I felt proud of myself in October to have found a job in a ‘dying’ industry. Now I just feel defeated.”

► “I like to believe that if we presented ourselves as the flawed, accessible humans that we are, people would trust us more, because they’d know where we’re coming from.”

FULL COMMENTS:

Dakarai I. Aarons, writer, Bethesda, Md.-based Education Week newspaper

“As a young journalist, I know my confidence in newspapers comes from spending the last decade not only observing up close how newspapers work, but contributing to that work myself as a newspaperman. For my money, there’s still no better place to go when you need a full, clear explanation of what’s happened and why it matters to you. Despite all the prognosticators who say newspapers will die, I see in the explosion of online media just the opposite. So many of these places are aggregators of news that first appeared in newspapers. Without newspapers, online news sites and blogs would lack the oxygen to feed their attention-grabbing and occasionally profitable enterprises.

“Newspapers have struggled, to say the least, in the economy of the latter half of the 2000s and we saw a lot of really talented people leave the business. And those of us who study newspapers carefully can see that some of the quality and institutional memory left with those people. But despite that, I am confident that newspapers are here to stay and are an institution in which I can have some certainty. No matter what conspiracy theorists say, accuracy and fairness still rule the day, as does a passion to serve the public and tell them the stories they need to help them be better citizens.

“I remain confident in journalism because I am seeing our field push itself to innovate in new ways. We’ve integrated marketing and branding principles to help sell ourselves to the public and to bring information to new audiences and deliver it in ways that we never imagined, such as using Facebook and Twitter. The emphasis on online media has created a new paradigm, and I think that challenge has invigorated some stalwarts and encouraged others to join in journalism who might not have considered the field before.

“Some of us, like my colleagues here at Education Week newspaper, have gone even further to interact with our audiences through live and virtual events, such as webinars and conferences. The passion newspaper men and women have to serve the public by any (ethical and prayerfully profitable) means necessary gives me confidence we will still be here for years to come. There’s always going to be a market for information collection, analysis and delivery. Our job will be to figure out the models that make that happen.”

Kat Greene, reporter, Dow Jones Newswires

“I question whether the conversation about trust is even relevant today. More and more, people are building their own ‘A1’ by choosing online what’s most important to them. To meet that demand, it’s perhaps more important for journalists to keep a role as conversation-starters or agenda-setters rather than as the impartial voice of reason over an issue, particularly because the audience doesn’t see us that way. In the bad old days of news, papers didn’t pretend to be impartial, and I like that about them.

“I don’t see being objective as something that’s possible, but rather, something we strive for. My point is, why should we? We’re just people looking stuff up and telling stories, just like anybody with Google can do these days, pretty much. We’re skilled at it and we have a great forum to do our work, and there’s absolutely a role for us. But ultimately, wouldn’t it make just as much sense to stop trying to frame ourselves as gods of information and start being people telling stories? People, with opinions and flaws and an angle and a background. Because ultimately, isn’t that the truth? I like to believe that if we presented ourselves as the flawed, accessible humans that we are, people would trust us more, because they’d know where we’re coming from.”

Brady Eve Potthoff, designer, Grand Island (Neb.) Independent

“Surveys like these shouldn’t discourage us. Instead, this should inspire better coverage of various topics ranging from school board meetings to the next environmental disaster. I believe most of us are our own biggest critic. (I know I certainly am.) At the end of a long day, if you can reflect and be proud of your work because it is truthful and balanced, I think that’s all that matters.”

Laura Chapman, communications specialist, News Link

“I’m not very optimistic. I think with technology, we’ll see more and more online news sources using a multimedia, user-interactive approach to telling the news. We want everything NOW. I would like to think newspapers will make it in their print form — because I love them — but hell, even I get my news online. And the next generation, the people 10 years younger than us, are all already texting and tweeting and uploading their own videos more than I do. I was shocked to see those survey results!”

Maddie Donovan, copy editor and designer

“To be frank, my confidence in newspapers is dwindling. In the 10 months I’ve been designing and editing at (my Gannett-owned job), I’ve lost the inside nation/world cover to the pre-packaged, corporate-mandated USA Today PDF; space on the front and local covers to permanent (and fairly large) ads; and whatever security I used to feel in my position to the announcement that Gannett will soon be outsourcing ALL of its design responsibilities to six ‘design hubs’ nationwide (ours will be going to Des Moines).

“I understand that circulation numbers are declining and that we need to trim expenses wherever we can. But as long as cost-cutting measures and the bottom line rule all of our content and design decisions, our quality will suffer – in print and online – and the journalists left behind after each round of layoffs will continue doing their jobs, however warily, with the diminished resources available.

“Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my job and the incredibly talented people I work with. I’ve learned tons about layout, design tricks and quick editing working on a four-person copy desk (one for inside, one for covers, one to rim and one to slot). I just get discouraged knowing the quality stories and pages we put out are increasingly less appreciated by our corporate overlords and by our readers, who don’t seem to comprehend how the recession is touching their community’s newspaper. I felt proud of myself in October to have found a job in a ‘dying’ industry. Now I just feel defeated.”

Alex Dalenberg, reporter, Green Valley (Ariz.) News
*Abridged response. Read his full comments on his blog.

“I feel like I have a good amount of confidence in newspapers. …  Knowing how the business works inoculates me a bit from some of the distrust that surrounds the media. I know that reporters are like most people; they’re by and large trying to do their jobs well and basically have good intentions (or maybe my outlook is too rosy, I’m an optimist). And, like most jobs, some people are going through the motions and some people go above and beyond (I’ve been lucky to meet more journalists who try to go above and beyond, even with limited resources). I do know that journalists (at least the ones I’ve worked with) don’t meet in shadowy cabals to decide how to frame the news or slant coverage toward a particular candidate.

“Journalism at the local level is too messy, busy and complicated to form any kind of grand, organized conspiracy because you’re just too slammed trying to get a good newspaper out to have time to lie, manipulate or obfuscate, even if you wanted to. You couldn’t keep track of it. Working in a retirement community this summer, I’ve been confronted by a fair of share of people who think of journalism as a secret society with motives that can’t be trusted. I tell them that if they actually spent a week at a newspaper they’d feel a lot better about some things (not that newspapers are perfect, but I think they do more diligence than people give them credit for).  …

“Maybe people distrust  ‘objective’ news because they understand that nothing in life is objective. I guess I’m old school in that I think that journalists should always be striving to reach objectivity (the same way you strive for Nirvana, it might not happen this lifetime, but you can get close), but maybe most people don’t actually feel that way. Maybe they would be happier if we stated our biases up front (although I don’t know how you could tabulate every single reporter’s individual biases, we’re not even aware of many of our own). I think people project the problem’s of a few giant media outlets onto every media outlet. I can tell you that the Green Valley News has nothing to do with MSNBC and Keith Olbermann, but I get plenty of heat for what they do when I’m interviewing at the Green Valley Republican club. The same goes for Fox News with the Democrats. Also, MSNBC and Fox insist on the charade that they are somehow more legitimate, or ‘fair’ news outlets than their competitors, which hurts all of us, rather than just saying, ‘Hey, we’re the liberal / conservative station.’

“Another problem may be that we’re too accustomed as a culture now to getting news that confirms our own perspective. You can go on the Internet and more or less find news ready-made to suit your pre-existing worldview. You don’t ever have to feel uncomfortable if you don’t want to. Why should you like or trust a news outlet that isn’t 100 percent to the way you think about the world when you have ‘safer’ options. Daily life, including our news is getting more partisan and the poor saps who try to stay in the middle are going to take fire from both sides and sometimes it seems like everybody is getting dragged down in the process.

“Or maybe I shouldn’t blame the audience. Maybe news just sucks sometimes. Maybe sometimes we actually are bad at our jobs. I’ve had corrections. I’ve known really good reporters who’ve had corrections. We’re not right all the time. In a sense, we’re never really ‘right’ about anything because every story has so many different angles and facets you could never get to every single one of them, especially not on a deadline in 500 words. In every news story I’ve ever been involved in (as a source or participant, not a reporter), the news has always missed at least one thing. It’s my belief that most corrections are never printed, because the errors are never discovered. Usually they’re benign, but they’re still errors.

“Anyway, I still like and trust my news, but I generally like and trust reporters. I also know that they spend a LOT of time thinking about stuff just like this. It’s the most self-reflective / self-loathing profession I’ve ever heard of. Maybe that’s a reason to give us a break sometimes. Or maybe it’s not. Excuses don’t go over well in any newsroom I’ve been in.”

Brian Anthony Hernandez, reporter, TechMediaNetwork’s BusinessNewsDaily.com in NYC

“A hairstylist, concerned about her freshman daughter pursuing a journalism degree, recently asked me, ‘Is this a good idea?’

“Without hesitation, I said, ‘Yes. Your daughter is choosing to go into an exciting profession.’

“While some journalists, particularly some who entered the industry before the explosion of online media, lament the state of journalism and cite the decline of newspaper circulation as a primary reason to jump ship, I have embraced the positive changes and advancements in storytelling with an eager outlook.

“As journalists, we tend to get caught up in facts and quotes. Those are important. What’s more important, though, are our readers. With them in mind and with the capabilities of online media, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How can we use video, audio, interactive graphics, slide shows and social media as supplements to our print products or as alternatives for a better storytelling format?’

“If we aggressively act on that question and get excited about the possibilities, I’m confident in newspapers and journalism. If not, I’m worried, because our readers will continue to find other print or web-based publications that do or just jump ship with us. The talent I’ve seen in this industry is capable of creating extraordinary packages that can reach a bigger audience than ever and tap into that audience’s emotions in ways that weren’t possible a decade or more ago.

“While typing this, I was reminded of a speech my editor at The Cleveland Plain Dealer gave in December 2007. I wasn’t there when she gave it, but I found the text soon after. It’s powerful. Two years ago, I described it as a ‘Damn good Future of Journalism speech,’ which you can read in a past blog post.

“Our mindsets are similar so I’ll conclude with her words because she sums up how I feel so eloquently. An excerpt: ‘Yes, these are tough times. Yes, our market has fractured, and the business model for the traditional metropolitan newspaper is irreparably broken. We have to get from where we are now – where the diminishing paper product pays all the bills – to where we need to be: A world in which the growing online product can support a robust newsgathering staff. Many of my middle-aged colleagues look at this state of affairs and conclude that our best days are behind us. I think only the easy days are behind us. I believe the future for journalism and its place in our society holds great promise, and as much opportunity as ever to make a difference in our troubled world.'”

CHIME IN: What are your thoughts on our comments? Are you confident in newspapers and journalism?

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August 18, 2010 - Posted by | Journalism, Online

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for bringing up such an important topic. As I sit here in my newsroom in Lincoln, Neb., I’m lamenting the loss of one reporter this week to a public relations job, one of a half dozen or so journalists here to leave in the last two years to public relations or related jobs.

    I’ve certainly thought about grabbing a lifeboat myself. I have three kids, and so I have to think about more than just what I want.

    That said, I love what I do, and I love the passionate, extremely talented people with whom I work. I can’t imagine ever finding such a professional group of co-workers again in my life should I ever leave.

    But more than that, I love helping people through the enlightening act of journalism. I can think of few professions where you can bring so much knowledge, hope and strength to people through words.

    I knew at a young age I wanted to be a writer. It was a gift I was given, and I hate to even consider not using it.

    So far, I don’t see a compelling reason to leave journalism. People are more hungry for news now than they ever have been in our country’s history. It’s true they get that information from an incredibly eclectic collection of sources: Fox News, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Yahoo News to name a few. But all of those news sources, especially the Daily Show and Yahoo News, pull the majority of their news from newspapers.

    That’s simply a fact. All newspapers need to do is figure out how to make money off their websites. Of course, that’s much easier said than done, but I’m encouraged by my company’s efforts to encourage their newspapers to produce more multimedia and to incorporate social media into our work. I think that mobile news is going to play big in journalism’s future. Everyone wants a smart phone, and everyone with a smart phone wants to know what’s going on in the world. Enter newspapers, hopefully.

    Comment by Kevin Abourezk | August 18, 2010 | Reply


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