Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Murder or Suicide?

America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was, the periodical expression of the thought of the time, the opportune record of the questions and answers of contemporary life, into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence, [...] the frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.
Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, journalist W.J. Stillman decried the effects of the telegraph on his profession.

This could have been written by an editor of a soon-to-be-out-of-business newspaper in any one of a hundred or more towns and cities last year alone. To update the story, instead of the Telegraph, we need simply substitute the Internet as the cause of the current malaise.

Oh really? Is the internet killing newspapers, or are they committing suicide?

Now, since newspapers not only survived but thrived after the invention of the telegraph, and the telephone and the television, I am prompted to ask why it should be that the internet has managed this feat in 'just one blow' to quote a famous folk tale. Has video really killed the radio star?

I mean, is the Internet really revolutionary, or simply evolutionary?

This may sound like splitting a semantic hairs, but the distinction is a crucial one, I think. It seems like a no-brainer to label the Internet as a revolution in human history when presented with 'evidence' like the way in which it has ruthlessly gutted the newspaper industry in the past ten years.

I don't think so, and here's why.

Just the other day, I read in the Daily Texan a letter to the editor that amounted to a correction even though the editor made no official comment on the letter. The letter writer was pointing out that a recent article--an opinion column, to be more precise--had erred significantly its portrayal of the University Scholastic League (UIL).

Among other things, the writer of the column misunderstood the relationship between the University and the UIL, the source of the UIL's funding and even most telling of all, the UIL's basic mission.

As the letter writer (who was in fact the Regional Director of the UIL) pointed out, a simple call to the UIL would have found someone more than willing to talk about the program and give the 'reporter' all the significant information they would have needed to write a good solid story about the UIL.

Except that the 'reporter' had no intention of doing that.

Instead, in an attempt to make their story line as sensational as possible, the student who wrote the article decided to eschew actual interviews with the principals in favor of their pre-fixed opinion and went ahead with a strident call for the elimination of the UIL program as both wasteful of University money and as an ineffective recruiting tool for students.

Of course the UIL is neither. Thousands of high school students from all over the state compete in Austin every year for hundreds of awards, ranging from literary to athletic. Further, not only does the University Scholastic League not rely on UT for its funding, it also doesn't serve as a recruiting tool for the University. In fact, the mission of the UIL is a public service, which the University facilitates as part of its larger role in State government.

Now, I know I've gone into excruciating detail here, but forgive me, because I hope for this to be more than a general rant. It is not the Internet but the phenomenon of lazy and false journalism that is to blame for newspapers' current demise and there are plenty of specific cases out there in almost every newspaper every day that prove the point.

To ward off the most obvious criticism, I will agree with potential critics who will say that my example, taken from a student newspaper after all, is unfair. The writers there are just learning their trade, right?

However true that may be, for evidence of this phenomenon in the 'professional' ranks, one need look no further than the daily rag, the Austin American Statesman. This newspaper has, for as long as I've been in Austin (40+ years), been on the decline.

I know this because I delivered papers for the Austin Statesman back in 1969, when there were still two 'newspapers' in town. Even then, even as a thirteen year old reading only the front page as I rolled and banded them on the front porch after school, I knew was what I was delivering to the doorsteps of that West Austin neighborhood was truly a poor excuse for a newspaper.

This was a long time ago, dear reader. This was before I'd taken any classes in journalism, before I had any notion that I'd someday be a co-editor of my high school newspaper, before I had any ambitions to be a journalist and, of course, way before the internet gave me opportunity to actually write for both of you.

Like the demise of the traditional auto and music industries, it's been a long time coming. My verdict? Suicide, not murder.

1 comment:

d2 said...

Good God, you've been in Austin 40+ years?

:)