Thursday, August 30, 2007

Recent Media Matters program and relevance to Civic/Citizen Journalism

The August 26, 2007 "Media Matters" radio program -- the broadcast hosted by Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois -- featured a fascinating discussion with Geneva Overholser of the Missouri School of Journalism. Overholser, who has a long print journalism career with such publications as the Des Moines Register and the Washington Post, talked at length about two items that have increasingly led to a disconnect between the larger dailies and their communities. Both of the concerns they discussed -- the increasing demand for profits and dysfunctional newsroom attempts to provide objectivity -- are very pertinent. However, my concern with this line of criticism are two: 1) it has been long discussed and often provides no new insights and 2) at times it focuses more on symptoms of newspapers' increasing problems and not so much on the root causes.

What may be one of those root causes? Well, how about entrenched ways of conceptualizing the newsgathering process? By that, I mean that there are certain "protective" ways print newsrooms go about deciding how they will define, research, gather and report news. To me, this is one of the long-standing lessons of the public/civic journalism movement. These concerns about the newsrooms "sociology of work" were pointed out long before the current criticisms about the shrinking of newsrooms, the increasing profit orientation of news operations and the drift of consumers to online news sources. In fact, the press's detached way of looking at the world and then deciding on how to report on it is a significant factor in the legacy media's downturn -- a cautionary note for those who believe that the migration to the online world will be a panacea for journalism's lack of relevance to many Americans. What needs fuller exploration, by watchdogs, journalists and academics, is how journalism's protective stance has undermined its pertinence to communities across the country.

There is no better example of a "fortress journalism" (a term popularized by Steven Smith of the Spokane Spokesman-Review and others) mentality than the almost-visceral hostility the St. Louis Journalism Review has displayed against public/civic journalism. In fact, when the publication's editor, Ed Bishop, recently wrote his farewell column, he citied the publication's resistance against the movement as one of his proudest moments. I couldn't resist the opportunity to write to them on how this particular proclamation spoke volumes about the troubles of both the current printed press and press criticism.

Another kind of bishop's tale
Burton St. John III.
St. Louis
Journalism Review 37.294 (March 2007): p5(1).

It's a bit disheartening when a respected observer like Ed Bishop, in singling out one of SJR's biggest accomplishments during his tenure, chooses to belabor how the publication successfully fought against the public-journalism movement. In spending about seven paragraphs on this subject, I couldn't avoid being impressed that his maintaining that the SJR had "won" had a hollow ring.

What was gained in the victory, especially for the contemporary daily
newspaper? Let's see, major dailies are losing circulation every year (as has been the habit for several decades now), newsrooms are facing continual cuts in resources as ownership profit motives prevail and surveys consistently reveal that younger Americans get most of theirnews from sources like the Internet, TV news and even the Daily Show.

What a reassuring win for SJR. Granted, Bishop is correct that the public
journalism movement was fraught with problems, but the one that I have been the most intrigued with over the years is the one that he, and other working press critics, won't own up to. It's hinted at right there in Bishop's own barbs toward the professors and funding organizations that championed the movement. Such rhetoric has been going on for years from press detractors, and it all points to suspicion (often justifiable) that outsiders with an agenda will get into the newsroom and muck up the integrity and credibility of the news workers. This defensive prism(which has been around for about 80 years) that many journalists used to evaluate public journalism is a greatly underappreciated dynamic.
Why? Because, rather than question the conventions at play in your workplace, it's so much easier to point at how the interlopers just don't get it, and then resist.

And who really benefited from that resistance? I would maintain that the
current crop of news owners see rewards from the movement's failures. After all, engaging the public to find out what they see as news is much more costly than continuing with such conventions as covering spats between local officials, devoting stories to celebrity mishaps or chasing down accounts of bizarre criminal behavior. Since these servings of "news" don't relate to many Americans' daily lives, no wonder newspapers are having trouble being relevant to their local communities.

At its core, despite its failings, misdirections and mistakes, the
public-journalism movement advocated that journalism worked better when it connected with, and included, citizen voices. Newspapers, in particular, have the resources, talent and inclination to provide these kinds of stories. But it only happens in spurts, and it is waning. So, Bishop wants to celebrate an SJR victory? In light of all this, it appears a shallow proclamation indeed.

Burton St. John III,
Assistant Professor, Communications
Old Dominion

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