A tough road to tread
Journalism is hard.
Despite being skilled labor that requires a college degree, the pay is low. The work schedule is demanding – you work a lot of long days and a lot of holidays. It’s a profession that often comes in high on the list of “nation’s worst jobs.” With changes in the industry, reporters are continually expected to do more with fewer people to take on the work as newsrooms shrink. Do a quick search, and it’s not hard to find several articles discussing the dismal state of the industry. One story that came out late last year (“The Human Toll of the 2019 Media Apocalypse”) cited sources that listed the loss of jobs in the field at anywhere from 3,385 to 7,800 – in just one year. Even for someone working in the industry, the number of papers closing and jobs lost is staggering.
Worse than all that? Journalism is so vilified these days that people don’t even seem to care. Because it’s my career, I do care, and I sometimes share articles like the one mentioned above. I know, even as I hit that “share” button, that only two types of people will pay attention. The first are my friends and colleagues who are current or former journalists – others who, like me, are all too aware of the crisis the field is facing and feel a helpless sort of discouragement about the whole thing. The second are the folks I know who respond with a glib comment (or meme) about “fake news” and the “corrupt mass media.”
It’s disheartening, to say the least. Maybe the most frustrating part of all is knowing how important the job is – on multiple levels.
Let’s start with community newspapers. Small, local papers have been hit hard by changes in the news industry, with many towns losing their newspaper entirely. That matters. Where else are you going to clip out pictures and stories that mention children and grandchildren who play for local teams? What about information on local events? Where else can you read in-depth about decisions made by the city commission or other entities? You won’t see any of that on Fox News or CNN. Don’t count on PragerU putting up a video on your Facebook feed. And, unless people get upset about something, they’re not likely to attend commission meetings in person.
Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted something that’s always been around, but the local media plays an important role in the community.
Community newspapers are not the only ones that matter, though. Just as The New York Times is not likely to give coverage to the Broadway Bike Lanes debate, The Shawnee News-Star is not going to release an investigative piece that exposes some huge, national scandal. Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Deepwater Horizon: All of these stories involved reporters dedicating months of research and digging before they could break a story with what they’d found. The paper in your town doesn’t have the time or the resources to do that sort of thing. There will always be people who do wrong and try to hide it, so we will always need people to seek out the truth, and newspapers play an important role in that. Disparage the “mass media” all you like, but the Founding Fathers knew the importance of a free press and built protection for them into the Constitution for a reason.
When I first toyed with the idea of working in newspaper, I was young and impressionable and thought it would all be like it was in the movies. One of my favorite movies at the time was an HBO original called “Winchell” about journalist Walter Winchell. Knowing what I know now, I can tell you I wouldn’t list any of that behavior as a rubric for how to do the job. Still, there’s one part of the movie I will always love.
Winchell is invited to a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who says, “You answer to no one. American needs a son like you, who answers to no one.” He finishes by telling Winchell that, when the times comes, “You’ll answer to no one … not even to me.”
That’s the essence of journalism, at least the way I see it. It’s not about currying favor with the right people or trying to put yourself in a position of power. It’s not about pulling punches to keep from making people angry or exaggerating facts to get revenge on someone who has annoyed you. Anyone who plays it that way is betraying their calling. The point, when all is said and done, is simply to record history, to seek the truth, and to inform the people.
That won’t always make you popular. Just look at Cassandra in Greek mythology. But sometimes when you believe in what you’re doing, you have to press forward anyway – even when there’s hardly a friendly face in sight and the path seems to be deteriorating beneath your feet.
I don’t know what the future looks like, but I know it will be a bleak one if we are ever to lose the free press that’s been a vital part of this country since before its founding.