I’ve spent the past twenty-five years interviewing teenage gangsters, pimps and victims of child abuse. At New York’s Attica prison, I sat elbow-to-thigh with a serial killer who enjoyed sharing his pornographic fantasies. Yet it was a 20-year-old college student from Eastern Washington who truly chilled me. She was a short, chubby girl, politely explaining that she’d been raised to avoid all news media. In her family, coverage of the local school board or analysis of civic affairs was considered just as dispensable as infotainment about celebrity sex scandals.
I met her while speaking to 1,500 college students and faculty at Walla Walla University about the collapse of print journalism and its implications. I’ve done a lot of these talks during the past year as a speaker for Humanities Washington, a gig I picked up after my own newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, folded in 2009. I’ve spoken with retirees and community-college kids, wine-bar aficionados and religious conservatives. One thing unites them all: ignorance about journalists and how we actually operate, as well as a frightening complacency about what’s lost as one newspaper after another permanently shuts off the lights.
This is not a paean to the nobility of reporters. I know as well as anyone how ego-driven and myopic we can be. Back in the newsroom, I thought I understood more about the world than anyone in my highly educated family — more about poverty, more about racism. After all, I was out there, talking with people every day. I had my hands thrust deep into the muck of reality.
Or so I thought. Then I stumbled into the hard, bright light of unemployment and realized that I’d never actually felt the hollow fear that greets millions of other American parents as they wake each morning. But now I understood, staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, watching my husband, laid-off from the paper’s sports desk, navigate community college and the vicissitudes of student loans en route to a degree at age 42. I learned something visceral about what it means to fight for opportunity.
The newsroom is a storied, hilarious place. But in its relative comfort and Constitutionally-protected status, it is nothing close to the lives of our readers, and that gulf is part of the problem. We became so adept at pointing out dysfunction that we crushed hope. Our relentless litanies of outrage began to quash belief in the power of action. And so, our readers turned away. The college girl who ignores news? There are millions like her. Andrew Weil, the physician named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine, says he avoids media as part of his overall wellness regimen. I can’t fault anyone who feels the same.
But I do fault those of us in the business who wave off news-avoiders as outliers while our jobs slide down the drain; who smugly trot out the old Jefferson line about preferring newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers — as if this defense of the First Amendment were proof of our importance. Or our permanence.
(We never mention the corollary, offered 20 years later by a sadder, wiser Jefferson: “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”)
This is closer to where we are today, a time when readers appear to prefer sideline gawking to stories that demand engagement. A time when editors, realizing this, serve up the journalistic equivalent of Cheez Doodles because, as several have told me: “Who are we to judge? Our job is to give readers what they want.”
I suspect that, after decades of watchdog journalism and whistle-blowing, those readers we’ve managed to retain are hungry for solutions — not distractions, not scapegoats. This co-called "Solutions Journalism” is gaining traction in newsrooms. But the proof, of course, lies with you, our readers.
So I pose the question to audiences, after laying out the facts about the 100-plus newspapers that have folded in the last five years and the reporters on unemployment and the easy clicks generated by photo galleries of Red Carpet fashion: What exactly is our job? Is it to provide the stories that you want, the weather reports and recipes and celebrity scandal? Or the stories that you need — even if the stories you need leave you uncomfortable? The answer, which was a given 20 years ago, is being reevaluated today at potentially ruinous cost.
For audiences, I often illustrate this want vs. need equation with a story from my days as a reporter in New York’s Hudson Valley. This was back in the mid-1990s, before the Internet became a convenient scapegoat for profit-driven news. At the local paper in Poughkeepsie, everyone knew that women had been vanishing from downtown Main Street for years. But despite that newsroom knowledge, we published virtually nothing until eight women had gone missing. Because this was a complex and problematic story. It pointed toward social problems that had been allowed to fester for years (drug dealing, prostitution), and its victims were unsympathetic. Most of all, it was a story distinctly unhelpful to a region invested in tourism.
But the police knew a serial killer was at work, and the day Kendall Francois finally led them to his home to find the bodies, the Poughkeepsie Journal was lying face up on his bed, open to a piece about the Missing Women Task Force, illustrated with a picture of uniformed state police standing with city cops, united and resolute. In other words, a photo-op, low-risk story handed to the newspaper in a press release from the District Attorney’s office.
Detectives told me there had been almost no pressure from the public to step up their investigation. I believe that more coverage from the newspaper would have generated that pressure. I believe those eight women lost their lives, in part because their community never had to face the fact that they were gone.
“There’s a lot more going on around here than the newspaper ever tells,” Francois murmured to me, years later, from prison.
The people that I talk to get it. They understand the slippery slope of making coverage decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis, and they always ask what I see ahead. This is what I say: Your reading habits are being tracked like never before, so if you’re tired of stories about celebrity marriages, don’t click on them. If you want to know more about your City Council or elected officials, then read that stuff. You’re voting with your mouse every time, and you need to be honest about the consequences of disengagement.
“My family does what you’re describing,” said the Walla Walla college student after the talk I gave there last February. “We never read news, and that never seemed like a big deal to me. But after your story about the killer and the women on Main Street, I’m not so sure. I need to think about this.”
We all do.