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Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007 | Scroll down the voiceofsandiego.org’s front page and you’ll find an editorial entitled “Feeling Good About the Future of Journalism.” It is a good editorial and very unusual. Almost everything one reads about journalism today is negative.
The decline of print newspapers is precipitous. Go back just over a decade along our coastline and you find a bounteous crop of newspapers from San Diego to San Francisco, all thriving in California’s growth and sunshine.
The newly-merged Union-Tribune was close to 400,000 in daily circulation, and the Orange County Register was neck and neck with the U-T. The L.A. Times had brought in a new CEO whose goal was 1.5 million circulation. The Santa Barbara News-Press was thriving under ownership of The New York Times. The San Jose Mercury News was the flagship of Knight Ridder, and San Francisco was still served by its historic papers, the Chronicle and the Examiner.
Today all these newspapers are in some kind of trouble: either dead (the Examiner), sold (the Mercury-News), up for sale (the Times), plundered and destroyed (the News-Press) or laying off staff, reducing coverage and losing circulation (the Union-Tribune, Register and Chronicle). And that’s just California’s coastline. The same phenomenon is repeating itself across the nation.
One question is what will replace the printed daily press? The voiceofsandiego.org model already is attracting nationwide attention, which explains the optimism of the Voice editorial. Online newspapers, replacing what the bloggers call the “dead-tree press,” are the future. Even those print newspapers doing well, like The New York Times and newly-sold Wall Street Journal, are increasingly relying on their online editions.
But the deeper question is this: What will become of the journalistic “mission?”
Newspapers have been known as the fourth estate for as long as anyone can remember, more important to the nation, said Jefferson, than government itself. Good government — democracy itself — depends on us, and lest anyone think of reining us in, we have the First Amendment to protect us — freedom of the press. Our business is different from others, more mission than business really, one requiring us to look behind closed doors, discover the truth, defend the public interest at all costs.
It’s been a hefty responsibility, but over the years has brought some mighty triumphs. In Vietnam, our reporting showed that the first casualty of war need not be truth. We published the Pentagon Papers, though the president sought to enjoin us. When that same president committed crimes, we forced him to resign. Our vigilance brought more sunlight into the shadowy recesses of government — freedom of information, open door and whistle-blower laws, court decisions affirming our right to name names of official miscreants without fear of libel.
Our readers and viewers — our “customers” — didn’t really like us; we were nosy and noisy and (gasp!) sometimes even unpatriotic. It would be a better world if we weren’t necessary. But we were necessary because it wasn’t a better world. So they put up with us. They had grudging respect for us. We were successful in our balancing act: We made enough money to fulfill the mission.
Just enough money, that is, no excess profits. Journalism was always first the mission, then the money.
But then the balance began to tip. The many heirs of family-owned newspapers like the L.A. Times demanded more money. And shareholders of publicly-owned newspapers demanded higher returns, leading to reduced staffs and coverage. The same phenomenon occurred in television: Once legendary news programs lost their bite as networks were sold off to conglomerates, whose obeisance was to Wall Street, not to the mission. Professional values began to be replaced by those of corporate America.
The latest in a long series of examples is the sale of the Wall Street Journal to the Murdoch press, another family selling out to a conglomerate. Having the same opinion of the Murdoch press as most journalists, some Bancroft family members opposed the sale, but, in a twist, were told they could not stop it: Because the Bancroft trusts and estate required trustees to “act in the best interest of the beneficiaries,” the family had to sell.
What does it matter that the mainstream media is being replaced by cable television and the blogs? What does it matter that newspaper circulation continues to fall and network news is mostly watched by grandparents? What does it matter than regional newspapers around the nation are failing, that the Chicago Tribune is under siege, the L.A. Times gutted, Knight-Ridder sold off, CBS News turned into infotainment, the Wall Street Journal sold to Rupert Murdoch, the champion of substituting ideology for truth and mission for money?
Not to worry. It is evolution at work, we hear, creative destruction. The proliferation of sources will usher in a better era, wrenching the news from a handful of elitists and “democratizing” it. Newspapers and networks are dinosaurs.
But what of the mission? What cable television program could have made Bush question his war as Walter Cronkite’s CBS commentary Feb. 27, 1968, made Lyndon Johnson conclude he had “lost middle America?” What cable program could do what Ed Murrow did to Joseph McCarthy? What blog could do what The Washington Post did during Watergate and The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers? What blog could do what two Knight-Ridder reporters did in exposing the Bush lies and deceptions over Iraq — the only reporters to avoid one of the press’s greatest failures.
Despite rampant gloom, on-line newspapers give us hope, which is why the Voice is being so carefully scrutinized. Unlike the blogs, the Voice is a newspaper with its own reporters and editors and clearly respects the mission of investigative journalism and speaking truth to power. Supported by their communities, carrying low overhead and appealing to young Americans who have been brought up on the Internet, online newspapers like the Voice are a crucial part of journalism’s future.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.