Where Have All The Journalists Gone? Democracy, Free Press, In The Age Of Internet Capitalism

Blinded By Journalism - photo by Ahmad HammoudWhat would happen if one day in the not so distant future, traditional print journalism died? I don’t mean what happens if we stop printing newspapers. I mean, what happens if “the press” is simply a collection of bloggers? I know I’m pouring gasoline on a fire with this line of questioning, most notably because I’m a blogger questioning the role of bloggers in journalism and news reporting, but is a person sitting in his bedroom or living room a journalist or a reporter?

I was listening to a conversation on The Majority Report podcast about the internet and journalism. Host Sam Seder and guest Robert W. McChesney, who is the author of “Digital Disconnect – How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy,” talked about how technology has democratized access to information at the same time it’s given birth to mammoth data-mining monopolies like Facebook and Google.

“Capitalism’s colonization of the Internet has spurred the collapse of credible journalism,” reads the book description on Amazon.com (yes, I hear you snickering). Capitalism made the internet “an unparalleled apparatus for government and corporate surveillance and a disturbingly antidemocratic force.”

I have not yet read Digital Disconnect, but it’s now in my book queue. The conversation about this book on The Majority Report got me thinking about the topic of traditional print journalism in an age where we are producing entire libraries of information every day.

And it really does boil down to this — the internet is killing traditional journalism. But it’s not the technology that is the issue, it’s how we use it, and how we define journalism in the age of free information exchange.

Subscriptions to newspapers and magazines never covered the cost of journalism. Advertising made up the difference. And both subscriptions and advertising are drying up because we live in a time when people believe all information, pretty much anything that can be put in text form, should be free. I don’t necessarily disagree with this. I think we need robust discussion that is not hindered by copyright claims, but it’s not like this information gets created for free, well, unless you are a blogger like myself. But even then, there’s a cost involved, but people like myself choose to do this at a loss, paid for by a time-consuming “day” job. And no, I don’t consider myself a journalist. I believe that distinction requires devoting much of your working time to journalism.

If you look at the history of traditional print journalism in America, you will discover we once put great emphasis on a growing and thriving press through tax subsidies. No, we don’t want government controlling the press, but we do want a robust press to hold government accountable. In a healthy functioning democracy, we should welcome a tax that fuels growth and competition of journalism startups and discourages mergers and monopolies. After all, monopolies are antithetical to a free market, and if big banks can get a bailout, why not journalism?

American government: It’s always subsidized commercial media (Online Journalism Review, University of Southern California) — A mythology about the relationship between American government and the news business is again making the rounds, and it needs a corrective jolt. The myth is that the commercial press in this country stands wholly independent of governmental sustenance. Here’s the jolt: There’s never been a time in U.S. history when government dollars weren’t propping up the news business. This year, federal, state and local governments will spend well over $1 billion to support commercial news publishers through tax breaks, postal subsidies and the printing of public notices. And the amount used to be much higher.

So is the internet good for journalism?

I believe bloggers like myself are participating in a 24/7, always on, 21st century town square debate. I don’t think the presence of thousands, maybe millions, of political and issues bloggers around the world is bad for journalism, just the opposite. Blogging is a companion to journalism, not a replacement. I know this is where I diverge from those who argue blogging and new media is the future of information exchange and journalism. I agree the internet is a wonderful place, but who’s going to organize all this information and figure out what’s important for humanity? And will a large enough slice of society tune in to make a difference? And when I bemoan the death of journalism, I’m not talking about what passes for journalism now on cable news. I’m talking about the small newsrooms around the country that have gone dark and the now unemployed beat reporters who might still have a voice somewhere, but fewer people are hearing it.

I do not think robust and hard-hitting journalism, that holds government accountable, through the power of the masses, is possible with disparate bloggers all around the country and the world. If you don’t have a cohesive message, you’ve lost mass appeal. And while we still have media companies that can produce a cohesive message for the masses, increasingly this privilege is abused by reporting on the birth of a royal baby, or the latest political scandal. It’s more about reporting on personalities than reporting on issues.

And so I think bloggers participating in debate on important issues is vital, but structure is needed. Dare I say, an agenda is needed. We need journalistic organizations that exist solely to serve the people and speak truth to power. And that means the decades old model of big media corporations gobbling up smaller news organizations, in the name of capitalist greed, and particularly in the age of the internet, is a disservice to democracy.

Bloggers aren’t going to be able to do this job alone. So-called new media companies are a good start, but then you see them getting bought out as well (The Huffington Post). A bunch of bloggers sitting in their pajamas is the equivalent of the Occupy Movement. No organization. No leadership. No way to advance important issues to a level where it breaks through all the chatter, resonates with the people, and has staying power.

My opinion might be contrary to many other political bloggers, but I’m not going to apologize for believing there’s still a place for organized, professional, and employed journalists. I believe it’s essential to a healthy democracy. The internet was supposed to democratize information, but it created a problem where we have too much information with too little organization. Compounding this problem is a shrinking pool of resources trained and devoted to filtering out the nonsense and finding the root cause, the heart of the matter. There are many great bloggers doing just this, but they don’t have a national presence, and they are not organized. While the internet allows us all to connect, it has also facilitated America’s current political dysfunction.

photo by Ahmad Hammoud

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