PORTSMOUTH, Va. — I hesitate to be vocal on issues because I sometimes work as a journalist. There is an idealized objectivity people who do this sort of work are supposed to maintain. Objectivity is debatable, especially when you have worked in opinion writing, but imposing my own bias troubles me.
That’s especially so on social media, where I have avoided discussion of recent events in Ferguson, Mo., though I have followed coverage intently.
If you care about the lives of others, it is hard not to be concerned about the issues represented by – but clearly not exclusive to – what is happening in Ferguson. I happen to care about life, opportunity, and progress for people whether or not they look or love the way I do. Though I am not covering events in Missouri, I have taken note of some criticism of the media and the arrest of reporters on the ground.
I find the best way for me to support our potential for a more free and just society is to express my support for journalism and, however infrequently, engage in it to the best of my ability.
Sometime that means fairly, if critically, representing views reasonable people may not appreciate. This is important even if it’s only to document for future generations that somebody actually thought this thing in quotes and then went ahead and really said the thing aloud in front of other people, for Pete’s sake.
Whatever the issue, whenever it arises, I believe in news gathering as the principal means of aiding public discourses and offering potential paths for social change. I believe that people with access to better information make better choices. I believe that newsgathering outlets, at best, perform a service many of the people who benefit from this service take for granted, in part, because they cannot differentiate actual journalism from what some people say about journalism.
I know these people may come to miss significant newsgathering capabilities traditionally aligned – especially on local issues – with the print industry if journalists cannot determine ways to fund local reporting as they continue to transition online.
One small way to support efforts to provide light and context to issues such as what is happening in Missouri is by supporting efforts to provide real journalism designed to inform people, even when those people may not like what they learn from this coverage. It makes sense to me to urge people to invest first in local media, then consider national sources, such as those who have reported extensively on issues such as race and the militarization of local police forces. But there are ways of investing in news gathering in other communities and nationally, as well.
I hope people will consider supporting journalism for what it does, not only fault it where they feel it falls short. It’s easy to bash the media, but media is term that really discusses a delivery system for a wide range of content, much of it varying wildly in quality. Faulting a newspaper for not being as successful as website, at least not yet, is as absurd as it is a secondary matter.
When I say I support journalism, I mean that I support public-interest newsgathering itself, not the various ways in which news is delivered or the type of content that, however entertaining, is not exactly in the public interest. And I acknowledge my subjectivity on this matter.
Newsgathering organizations are doing important work right now in Ferguson. Many are doing strong work, for example, addressing issues that predate and will survive the attention we are paying to this place now. These are issues that touch many communities. This speaks to the universal nature of the specific story. This also speaks to the way one specific conversation leads to other discourses.
Journalists are also doing important public-interest newsgathering in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, where I live. It may not always be about the biggest national issues, but that’s kind of the point. Local reporting matters to people here, whether or not they appreciate it. Local coverage includes “localizing” national stories such as Ferguson, and, as The New Journal & Guide has done, forwarded reports from The St. Louis American, a newspaper serving the African American community in Missouri.
People who value journalism that reflects public debate, problems, and potential solutions should think about how information comes to them, understand the difference between gathering and disseminating news, and make an informed decision to support the process of news gathering by those they feel do it best.
Journalism is conducted at great cost, amid difficult circumstances, and faces heavy criticism from citizens and organizations that both consume its work, often for free, while they effectively or actually obstruct it through indifference, obfuscation, and generalizations.
Still, local news gathering matters. An online aggregator does not magically come up with real reporting on a local issue. I have never seen The Huffington Post at a local city council meeting. On that last one, all thanks be to Zeus.
A local newsgathering organization gathers news by using real reporters who earn real money by covering real beats amid real difficulties. Sometimes there are real lawyers, such as the times in my own career when I was prevented from attending government meetings or court hearings. I’m fairly sure just having a lawyer’s business card in my wallet cost The Pilot $150. And sometimes I called the number on the card.
Point being: real news that digs costs real money.
The aggregators swoop in later, and often so do other outlets with lesser resources. Surely newsgathering organizations are imperfect. In part, this is because they employ reporters, not aggregating bots like bogus Twitter “publishers.” Some criticism is deserved, but some is merely shooting a messenger without applying critical thought to a greater discourse.
There should be concern about smaller newsrooms, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need newsrooms.
We are simply better off as Americans with newsgatherers than we are without them.
Since real issues also exist here, wherever here is for you, people who say they support progress and diversity in our communities might support their local, significant newsgathering organization. Where I live, that might be The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk or The Daily Press in Newport News, both newspapers that maintain relatively substantial newsrooms, the ongoing issues of the print industry aside. [Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at The Pilot, and I sometimes write for it and sister publications as a stringer.]
The Daily Press recently noted the importance of and desire for local coverage in a story by J. Elias O’Neal discussing the newspaper’s recent redesign, which now includes stories that were zoned to readers of smaller geographic areas. O’Neal wrote:
The separate Town Square sections, which were traditionally folded over the main Daily Press publication, have been absorbed into the paper — an effort by newspaper executives to beef up local news content in the main body of the paper.
In the long run, the content matters more than whether or not it is on paper. Local news is the core product.
So what is support for your local newsgatherer? You can subscribe to the print or paywalled online edition. If you have the means, buy an advertisement, even a little one. Broke? You can also contact the news gathering organization. Or proactively share content from their original pages, not those of aggregators or blogs adopting their content. Write letters to the editor about issues that seem not to be covered or are being covered in ways you like or dislike. You can disagree with what they publish, and, as strange as it sounds to non-newspaper people, committed, transparent newsgatherers may very well publish your disagreement. Additionally, as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrated this week in regards to a staffer’s controversial tweet, legitimate newsgathering organizations tend to be clear about when their folks have made a mistake.
You can also subscribe to a number of smaller newspapers that engage in community journalism. In my community, these include The New Journal & Guide and The Suffolk News-Herald. Clicks and shares are nice enough. Subscriptions and ads – real support, not lip service – are better.
So what if you think this is all baloney?
That reporting is out of touch?
That real voices are still marginalized?
There are ways to demonstrate on your own. There are government meetings to attend. There are groups that need help, either with money or sweat equity. You can also help real journalism by getting smart about it.
Be a citizen.
Employ some of the tools of reporting to your citizenship. Google your state’s open records laws. Take ‘em out for a spin. Review court records of real cases involving real people in your community. Find out whether law enforcement and government agencies are representative of the communities they serve in either hiring practices or the people they cite for traffic violations.
Think critically. Ask questions. Do some legwork where there are real, local streets, not only by liking something you zip past along the information highway.
If nothing else, you’ll have a better sense of why aggregation is so frustrating to people who have done real journalism and would like to see a real future in it. Newsgathering is vitally important, increasingly undervalued work that places the cornerstone of pretty much every argument worth having.
Liking an aggregated story online isn’t enough. Your local journalists need a more direct form of affection.