Newspapers are not what they used to be. They are lighter and thinner and sound more alike because they increasingly rely on the same sources to supply their news, the Associated Press or The New York Times, organizations that are themselves smaller than they used to be.
Despite their function in society, newspapers, at least individually, are not considered to too big to fail. Many already have.
For decades, newspapers flourished because of a monopoly on print advertising, a loophole, now closed, that journalists blissfully benefited from without being much aware of it. The lights stayed on, the desks full and we covered the news. Our jobs were simple in concept if not in execution: to be good reporters.
That meant be curious, be skeptical, be organized, be aggressive, learn your beat, know your sources, break news, and write something beautiful every now and then. We got paid to think, report, and write, a simple luxury that most took for granted not so long ago. Someone else got paid to worry about delivery, packaging, sales, and all the essential tasks that were not part of covering the news.
I enjoyed that luxury in ways that are difficult to imagine today, reporting long-form stories from faraway places at the pleasure of a large desk of editors. At Newsday, at the AP, at The Seattle Times, I was given time, a lot of it sometimes, to report and write. Expenses were paid. Stories were scrutinized and handled with meticulous care.
To be honest, newspapers probably had it too good. At least in the largest newsrooms, we had more than we needed. We were probably too comfortable. While serving readers, we indulged ourselves. We sometimes wrote redundant stories. We got too cozy with sources and forgot our job was to be skeptical of them. We took extraordinary resources and sometimes gave ordinary efforts. Today, circumstances are far different. Resources are thin and demands are high.
Today, veterans and aspiring journalists alike are told to learn web publishing skills, to be fluent in social media, to write blogs and maintain a Twitter feed, and write for clicks and eyeballs. They are told in order to get ahead they need to learn how to shoot digital photos and video, to record audio, and to edit them and post them on the web— a lot of divergent skills for a small pool of jobs. It is comparable to telling a journalist in 2000 that in order to get hired and be a good reporter, she should learn how to cut and paste copy in the composing room, take photographs, learn how to sell ads, keep tabs on fluctuations in circulation numbers, and overwrite as much as she can, mostly without the benefit of trained editing.
Whether or not the age of digital media represents progress is debatable. We have gained speed and access to seemingly unlimited data. News is delivered instantly. Everyone possesses the technology to report and publish on a basic level. A democracy of information is forming. But we have lost plenty too.
Appetite, rather than wisdom, drives the news. Wisdom and knowledge used to occupy the top of our mental pyramid. Now information and data are at the top. The former is subjective, but refined and studied; the latter is objective but raw and not always attached to meaning. The delivery system has become more important than the content itself.
We have lost good storytelling and lots of good reporters. Where are they?
They are in law school. They are selling real estate, teaching school, raising goats and chickens, working for well-meaning foundations, writing product descriptions for Amazon, or composing help copy for Microsoft. Former journalists might still be writing, but in the name of sales or marketing rather than news.
Even journalism does not sound like journalism anymore when the important talk is about platforms and flow and branding and strategy. Search engines have become the new authority, a marvelous invention that can sometimes feel like a rummage sale as you sort through mountains of junk to find the pearl you want.
In the reinvention of media, the industry has come up with a new term: digital journalist. In this day and age, is there any other kind? All stories written by reporters are posted on the web. All photographers use digital cameras. All reporters write blogs, or can write blogs — doing so is not a great achievement of technology, or of journalism frankly. In too many cases, blogging is just an excuse to write about something not worth writing about, or an exercise in lazy reporting, the “what” and the “where” without the “who” and the “why.”
I know very few journalists who have not at least seriously considered a different career. Who could blame them? Those who remain in journalism see it as a calling, not just a profession. These days, to be a journalist is an act of faith. If you write for an organization like Crosscut, you do it because you take seriously the role of local media.
Crosscut is that rare online news site that reports news, not buzz or gossip in the guise of news. It respects the internet as a platform, but is not slave to it. It still values quality over velocity. It gets that while the medium has changed, the value of the written word has not.
Crosscut is a true community institution which is what newspapers are at their best. That is why I chose to write for Crosscut. It is not perfect. It is not likely to regularly break news or to cover the city in its entirety. It has a small staff. It relies on perspective and expert opinion to make up for what it lacks in sheer staffing power. Pound for pound, its staff of contributors is one of the most talented and experienced in town. I write for Crosscut because its readership is informed and earnest and expects a lot. I write for Crosscut because the newsroom, small as it is, encourages imagination and creativity. I write for Crosscut because its leaders believe a news organization can be small and still be an important voice.
Crosscut must pick its spots, covering the issues that are most important or ones that are neglected by other news media. To keep doing that, Crosscut needs membership support. It cannot be all things to all people; not even newspapers can be that anymore. But with the support of members, Crosscut can grow and continue to do what it does best, to be local in its coverage, but broad in its thinking.