Commentary

Reporting matters

robert neu

Yukon River paddler Robert Neu/Facebook

Commentary

In one short post at craigmedred.news, Pete Snow raises an interesting point everybody seems to be missing in the discussion of these times about journalism bad, good and dying.

 

“Craig, you should find the German guy and get the story directly from him. That would be a story worth reading,” wrote Snow, an associate professor of elementary education at Kenai Peninsula College.

The German in the statement is a Yukon River paddler reported to have had a conversation with Jerald Harrison, the alleged mad man of the Yukon River. Harrison appears linked to fires that have burned a number of cabins at four different camps along the river.

Angry notes have been left at the scene of each of the fires. The notes attack a Fairbanks council woman and then level slurs and threats at Athabascan Indians, who make up most of the fewer than 2,500 people living in 10 villages spread out along about 400 miles of the middle Yukon.

Snow’s note is a call for reporting, which is something easily overlooked in a world where it has become hard to define what is journalism and who is a journalist.

Can you say, Ann Coulter – “Lawyer, Television Personality, Journalist, Radio Personality” – or Keith Olbermann – “American Journalist, Political Commentator and Sportscaster”?

Coulter and Olbermann are celebrities. They may have provocative or interesting things to say. You may love them or you may hate them. They are both very good at what they do.

It’s not really reporting.

Inverted pyramids

One thing young journalists used to be taught first in school was something called the “inverted pyramid.” It instructed them to put the most important information at the top of a story and work down from there into all the gooey detail.

The format was a good one for the jobs they were being trained to do: collect a lot of information and arrange it in a way an eighth grader could understand.  There was a future in reporting then. Newsrooms were filled with reporters gathering all kinds of information and shaping it into news stories.

A lot of them had beats. They covered crime, courts, the environment, politics, the city, business and a whole lot more. Some of them spent so much time on their beats collecting information they became experts on the subject they were covering.

Don Hunter, a city-beat reporter for the now defunct Anchorage Daily News, became a legend for what he knew about the Municipality of Anchorage. When he retired in 2010 after three decades of covering city hall, then Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, the son of the first mayor Hunter covered, declared Jan. 27 as “Don Hunter Day,” and urged “citizens to recognize and appreciate Don’s hard work, which has made for a more informed public.”

Hunter and a small army of reporters like him collectively formed a different kind of pyramid, an information pyramid that started out big at the bottom and got ever narrower as it rose to support editors, columnists and editorial boards.  They all depended on that big base of reporters to supply them information.

Sadly, that base has been shrinking for decades. Newsroom employment peaked at 56,900 in 1990, according to media watcher Ken Doctor at Newsonomics. Writing for Politico last fall, he predicted the number could be down to 28,000 by this year. 

The information pyramid built on reporting is starting to look like the Washington Monument. And the situation is actually worse than it looks. Many of the most experienced reporters have already abandoned the sinking ship. And most of the smart kids have the sense not to get aboard.

Packaged news

Guess who has rushed in to fill the void? Business and the government, especially government.

As an experiment, read the newspaper (online or onpaper) or an Anchorage television website today and see how many stories track back to a media release put out by a local, state or federal bureaucrat.

Paul Jenkins, a columnist for Alaska Dispatch News who was for a long time an Associated Press reporter in Alaska when it meant something to be an Associated Press reporter, late last month took the newspaper to task for its reporting weaknesses.

“So, it turns out we live in a city  where the police chief can be suspended without pay for two weeks, and nobody notices. We live in a city where the School Board takes a month or two off — and nobody even cares,” he wrote. 

It’s easy to point the finger at Dispatch News reporting staff, but what doesn’t get covered isn’t really their fault in a scheme that requires so much time be devoted to rewriting the media releases of the day.

Today’s news organizations have become almost Pavlovian in their response to those releases. They are conditioned to believe that if someone in officialdom says something important, it must be important.

Thus you better get a reporter on that fast. And since all the reporters are tied up responding to these media releases which must be handled….

Well, you’ve probably got the picture by now.

The police chief can be suspended without pay for two weeks with little notice because there was no media release. Ergo: it’s not important. And nobody has time for the seemingly unimportant story, or the interesting but time-consuming tale.

Paddling down the Yukon

All of which brings this back to Snow’s comment about the German paddler.

Reporting is tedious, often boring and sometimes costly work. Very costly work. There was a time three decades ago when the Anchorage Daily News, a now defunct newspaper, might well have sent someone to the Yukon to chase the madman story.

The newspaper had the staff, and it had the money to do such things. It’s successor, the Alaska Dispatch News, today lacks the money. It is in bankruptcy.

Craigmedred.news lacks both the money and the staff. This is a one-man operation trying to write one good read a day.  If you think this is easy, try it. I can’t be very far from the computer and the cell phone for long and still do this.

No matter how much I’d love to chase down that German paddler first said to be named Robert New. He has not been easy to find. A few hours of searching the internet last night and this morning for a German named Robert New produced nothing, which brings up something else Snow said.

He pondered the problem of  what “happens when FB gossip is reported as ‘news’. ”

There is no doubt a good bit of what is on Facebook is gossip, rumor, pontification, nonsense and just plain bullshit. There is sometimes also valuable news there. And reporting is really, at some level, all about separating the former from the latter.

If you’ve been in this business for long, you learn you have to be skeptical because a few people flat out lie to you, and a whole lot of people shade the truth. Good reporters learn to sort through this pretty well, but they still get things wrong with a depressing regularity.

In a story yesterday, I ran with the New report even though I couldn’t find New online because the source, a couple in Holy Cross, were credible. And they posted a photo of New with their report, and provided information that fit with what others along the river were saying on Facebook:

“….He is German and traveling downriver in a rubber raft. He is very respectful and just spoke with the Trooper and provided information. He’s expecting to travel all the way to Emmonak. I just wanted to share his photo so that downriver villages are aware he is a good guy. ”

His green rubber raft appeared to be an inflatable kayak or canoe, which  led others to refer to him on Facebook as a canoeist. As it turns out, the main thing most of these people had wrong was the spelling of his last name.

It is Neu, not New. He is from Dusseldorf and bills himself on his webpage as a travel journalist and lecturer.  In his inflatable boat, he has floated the Danube in Europe, the Yangtze in China and a variety of other rivers.

His Facebook page shows him now on the Yukon. Unfortunately, he has not updated it since August 2 when he resumed his journey after running into some trouble. His boat was stabbed several times while he was in Fort Yukon enjoying Alaskan hospitality.

“I am hanging round with friends I met last year. They are treating me like a king, feeding me all kinds of salmon, fresh, half-smoked, strips, and mooseburgers, BBQ Alaskan style!” he wrote on July 19. ” Makes it hard to leave Fort Yukon but I will tackle the second part of my journey soon!”

A day later, the story was this:

“Well, that’s when I wrote a few hours ago that it’s hard to leave the place, now it’s (a) reality. Whoever it was, the assholes treated my boat with three stabbed. The air’s out of the trip. Such a shit….”

But a pilot from Fairbanks-based Warbelo’s Air flew Neu’s boat back to the Interior city, where it was patched and Neu was soon back on the river.

“After the boat got stabbed with a knife in a village, we had it repaired, flown into Fairbanks and back and if u look closely u see the patches at the front. Then I did about 300 miles and it holds the air well and I can keep going!” he wrote on Aug. 2.

Neu’s trip has clearly only gotten wilder since then.

He obviously has a story to tell. Finding him to get him to tell it is the hard part.

And this illustrates what reporting is –  the dogged pursuit of pursuit of information. It’s the part of journalism that gets talked about least these days when maybe it should be talked about most because reporting is the commodity of which this country could use a lot more.

It’s the most valuable part of journalism. And if journalism is to survive, it must show it has some value.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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