Local journalism as most Americans have known it for most of their lives is on its death bed.
Its epitaph may have been written best by an anonymous, one-time “senior business writer” quoted by journalism professor Frederic Filloux in Monday Note:
“Look, I’m 45. I have worked at Reuters and The Economist. Do you know how much I need to live in Brooklyn with two kids? Now I’m doing fine. I have more time and more access for my reporting…But yeah, I can’t bash the client…”
One door closes; another door opens.
The one-time journalist in question changed his career to one of the various forms of corporate and government journalism in play today with everyone reporting “news.”
“It’s ‘Where’s Waldo’ Alaska style – Help count our Anchorage Bowl moose this weekend!!” the Anchorage Police Department “reported” Friday. “Starting today our fabulous friends at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will be counting our moose in the Anchorage Bowl. And they need your help to do it!!!”
This is the thing the news media used to do, minus a few exclamation points. Now we have borough agencies “reporting” on state agencies and state agencies “reporting” on themselves, and plenty of these “reporters” getting paid comfortable wages to make their bosses look good.
As Filloux’s acquaintance explained, these jobs provide “more time and more access for my reporting….But yeah, I can’t bash the client….”
A great ‘reporting’ gig
This is what Alaska State Trooper spokesman Ken Marsh, now retired, was doing a month or so back when he was unavailable to answer reporters’ questions. He was finding the time and access to “report” “Survivor,” a dramatic story about how his bosses rescued 30-year-old Tyson Steele after he burnt himself out of one of the several remote structured he was inhabiting about 75 miles northwest of Alaska’s largest city.
As the headline summarized, it was a life-or-death matter. Steele neighbor David Wilson had a somewhat different view.
“In the (Trooper) video you can see two industrial Quonset huts still standing covered in snow,” he said on craigmedred.news. “There is that cabin 100 yards away. Three-quarters of a mile is another airstrip with two houses and a cabin. I have a cabin two miles away.
“The Yentna River is two and a half miles away. I put a snowmachine trail within two miles of him while he was there in December. Within five miles, there are 20 cabins, (with) four full-time families, and two former fishing lodges.
“You have to try to help yourself a little. I think he was fine and just sick of Alaska and wanted a ride out.”
These are the kinds of details for which a journalist of old would have gone looking. They are the kinds of details the corporate and government “journalists” can easily rationalize away.
Rationalization is a powerful mechanism for self-preservation. As the writer William Faulkner once observed, “ingenuity was apparently given man in order that he may supply himself in crises with shapes and sounds with which to guard himself from truth.”
Making a living
That said, it’s hard to fault corporate or government “journalists” for going where the money is. Most of them are just people who wanted to get paid a living wage to tell stories, and now they’re getting paid a living wage to tell stories.
In that regard, they appear a lot smarter than most of the people still clinging to jobs in the fast fading field of what one might call, for lack of a better word, “traditional” journalism.
To put the quote from that Brooklyn writer in perspective, consider that while a family of four might be able to survive on $38,000 in Fayetteville, Ark. – one of the cities with the lowest cost of living in the country– the website Nerd Wallet calculates you would need to make $83,131 per year – more than twice as much – to live the same lifestyle in Brooklyn.
And $38,000 in Fayetteville isn’t exactly living high on the hog. The median household income there is reported to be $41,158.
If you are young, attended a journalism school to obtain the degree most news organizations now expect, and lack for parents with deep pockets to pay for your education, the financials indicate you would have to be an idiot, wholly obsessed with saving the world, or mentally defective to pursue a career in traditional journalism.
Filloux’s commentary questioned whether universities should even be teaching journalism anymore and went on to suggest that if they are to continue they “should better align their fees with expected salaries of their students.”
Fat chance of that happening. University enrollment was down two million for the decade as of 2019, Forbes reported, and the U.S. Department of Education predicts only a slight uptick this decade.
Some colleges and universities themselves are struggling to survive. They need the money students asses in the seats deliver, and it’s big money in places.
“On average, a student will pay $57,000 per year to attend one of these (top) J-schools, living expenses not included,” Filloux reported. If you can get by with borrowing only half of that and can finish school in the standard four years, you’d only be $114,000 in debt.
“It’s a double whammy for a young journalist attending Arizona State or Columbia: they will pay the equivalent of an MBA or a law school tuition for a salary that will make the burden of their student loan almost unbearable,” Filloux added.
Arizona State is reported to cost $94,176 per year.
Smart, clear-eyed people don’t make the decision to spend so much money to prepare them for a job – if they can find one – that will pay them so little they will struggle well into their 30s (maybe beyond) trying to pay off the debt.
Smart, clear-eyed people gravitate to jobs where they can make a decent living, and if that means they can’t “report” exactly what they want to report for fear of “bashing the client,” so be it.
There is a phrase for what this situation creates for the traditional media, although it is painful to use the phrase because it sounds so much like an insult to the young people still trying to make it as journalists. But anyone with half a brain here knows what the phrase is so we might as well admit it:
Most of the smart kids avoid careers that look to have no future. And it is this, more than anything, that has put journalism as we once knew it on its deathbed. In an increasingly sophisticated and well-educated world, “news” written by people who don’t know what they are talking about is not a very saleable commodity.
Hell, in a country that grew up on the idea that news should be free and where TV and radio stations continue to give it away online as a loss leader, news written by people who do know what they are talking about is a barely saleable commodity.
Look no further than The McClatchy Company, one of the nation’s biggest news organizations. McClatchy thought the news it provided was so good the company could put it behind an online paywall, the revenue would roll in, and all would be fine. McClatcy is now filing for bankruptcy.
An older Alaskan cannot help wondering what Anchorage Times publisher Bob Atwood and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner publisher C.W. “Bill” Snedden would think if they were still alive today. Both endowed chairs in the journalism departments at their hometown universities.
Yes, despite the withering world of journalism, the state still supports journalism programs at both the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
These days, Atwood and Snedden – sometimes reviled as boomers and bottom-line businessmen in their day – might well argue for putting the money into some other form of education until journalism sorts itself out, or eliminating the journalism departments but making Journalism 101 a requirement for all students.
In the digital world where anyone can be a digital journalist just like me, it might be a good idea for everyone to have some idea of what it is. But there doesn’t seem much sense at all in training people for jobs that don’t exist.
Or, possibly worse yet, training people to take their “journalism” skills to work producing “news” for corporations or government while still believing they are journalists. About 90 years ago, there was a German documentary filmmaker named Leni Reifensthul who went down that road.
It ended poorly first for German democracy and then for the world. But surely, as Sinclair Lewis wrote, “It Can’t Happen Here.”