The future of journalism

Paul Finebaum’s radio show was like a seminar in the new media on Thursday. Finebaum spent a significant amount of time talking about blogs, newspapers and the role of the Internet in modern journalism.

It was a provocative hour, which included an interview with one of the better (and busier) bloggers, Spencer Hall of EDSBS.com.

Later, the show included an interview with Richard Scott, formerly the Auburn beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. Both interviews provided me with much to think about.

I ended up spending most of my afternoon in the car, and then over dinner pondering the future of newspapers. It is something I care about—newspapers are a vital part of our nation. They play a critical role in our civic/political life. Without them, you wouldn’t uncover corruption like Watergate, or the Alabama two-year college system fiasco.

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We need newspapers. But how can they survive when many do not understand the Internet? Scott and Finebaum discussed how newspapers often break stories on their websites. “What’s the point?” Finebaum asked.

Scott replied the point is proving you can compete with television.

And that’s the wrong reason for a newspaper.

Breaking news on a site should be a promo for the next day’s paper. It is a marketing attempt. Tell people first on the Internet, and then the next day tell them tall the juicy inside details that nobody else knows.

But that requires beat reporters to work their beats. And as the radio show discussed, most beat writers want to be personalities instead of beat reporters.

That is a problem I’ve complained about on this blog for a long time. It is a bigger problem among sports reporters relative to news reporters. Why is that? Everyone has an opinion about a sporting event, but very few people have an opinion about risk management policy for a municipality.

Who cares if the city buys a Mac or a PC? But we all care about Jimmy Johns.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—the reporters are the problem with newspapers. Journalists today look nothing like the communities they serve. According to the State of the Media 2008 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, journalists, particularly print journalists do not reflect the general population’s political beliefs.

Among the population as a whole, 36% call themselves conservatives – more than triple the percentage of national and internet journalists, and more than double the percentage of local journalists.

One of the most striking disconnects between reporters and the general public is in the area of religion. Only 8 percent of the press attend a church or synagogue weekly; about 47 percent of the general population attends a church or synagogue weekly.

When editors and reporters all think alike, how can we doubt bias, even when subtly exercised, wouldn’t creep into the newsroom. Bias isn’t usually overt, but is covert through story selection, story tone, story placement, headline writing, and even the assignment of writers. Most of the time the editors and reporters would be unaware of the bias.

Bias is a fact of life. People aren’t perfect, and personal bias creeps into their work product, even when attempting to be a professional journalist. Newspapers lose credibility when they deny their own human fallibility. Going to journalism school doesn’t make your less human—despite what Rush Limbaugh or a journalism professor might say.

On average, I believe newspapers do a good job of keeping bias out of the actual story. But poor reporting, and lazy editors allow too many biased pieces into print. Just look at the shoddy reporting, cozy relationships and agendas perpetrated on the Alabama public during the Shula years, and in Phillip Marshall’s coverage of Auburn. If that isn’t shoddy journalism, then what is?

Are blogs less reliable than the old line press?

It was a topic Hall and Scott discussed during their segments with Finebaum. Hall said more and more bloggers are embracing transparency—something about the way he phrased it sounded more like coming out of the closet. Scott said bloggers use the cloak of anonymity to write anything they want because bloggers don’t have to face the subjects of their commentary.

Maybe I should renounce my seclusion, and just let everyone know who I am. Would it matter? Probably not. Well, it would make it easier for Nick Saban (or actually some of his subordinates) to find me, and rough me up when the time comes that Saban does something I don’t like.

But there does seem to be a snobbery evident in mainstream media types like Scott.

“Any guy with a computer is all of the sudden a blogger, and all of the sudden his opinion carries some weight…But a lot of that opinion is uninformed opinion.”

Isn’t that the same argument made against sportswriters? “You never played a down of football!” has been uttered more times on Finebaum or on Internet sports forums than any phrase other than a curse word. Isn’t that the logic which created the Jockocracy in sports broadcasting?

And why should we consider the opinion of some bozo with enough money to own a printing press (or some bozo working for the boss bozo who owns the printing press) as more informed than the general public?

Which gets us back to the problem of reporters. When the reporters don’t reflect the general public, they can’t report on what matters to the general public. When only about 8 percent of reporters attend church weekly, and about 50 percent of the general population does, do you think reporters are going to understand the subtle issues involving religion? Or will the vast majority of the media be tone deaf to the nuances of what really matters to the religious public?

And can we doubt the same thing for sports reporters? Can we doubt they are capable of, and often guilty of pushing their own agendas?

The strength of the “new media” or blogs is the fact they embrace their bias. Everyone knows this is an Alabama site. Does that mean you can’t trust what we write? Or does that mean you as a consumer should view what we write through that prism?