Kevin Hoover: If Journalism Dies In The Cradle, Who Will Give Us Our Content And Context? – May 19, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Among the more moving – and troubling – things I’ve experienced lately was listening to the future of journalism pleading to be allowed to live.

The young but wise voices who create Arcata High’s Pepperbox newspaper weren’t asking for X-Boxes, concert tickets or other ephemeral trinkets. They were begging for the training and experience they need to do the grueling, often thankless work of journalism.

The NHUHSD administration and board have no good choices for budget shrinkage. The usual compulsion in cases like this is to heap abuse on the mean old school administration for the screwed-up priorities that have trickled down from much further up the decisionmaking food chain. People generally grab the nearest viceroy and start wailing on them. That’d be off-topic.

The process they’re following is both painful and public. They’re doing the best they can balancing legal requirements with interest by students in choosing what parts of the curriculm survive.

That said, they shouldn’t let Arcata High’s journalism tradition die off. I used to do computer work in the Arcata High Library, and as hard drives backed up I would peruse copies of the Pepperbox from the 1930s and 1940s. It was incredibly enchanting. Is 2010 where it all ends? For lack of a few dollars?

Sure, they can make journalism a club. But then it will be up to chance whether enough students take on the additional work outside their actual academic load to make a newspaper. Besides, community journalism is more than a hobby, or should be.

In part, the threat to local journalism reflects the preferences of society at large. We don’t appreciate or support reporters unless they’re raking the muck of those we don’t like.

In a world with so much money for wars of choice and ultra-luxury yachts, ridiculously huge television sets and cars that park themselves, we have to parsimoniously dole out the trifling amounts needed to educate our able and energetic young people. But hey, if the journalism students are disenfranchised, they can always just go blog under fanciful names.

As wonderful as the flattening of the media is – that is, the ability of anyone to gain access and publish online – it has sapped participation in the good old print media that does the bulk of the original reporting.

Most websites and blogs that traffic information are aggregators. Typically, they’ll selectively sample the real newsies’ work and tart it up with snarky, personalized commentary.

Many of the the local blogs, particularly the ones that skewer those of us in the news business most aggressively, are anonymous. They have no standards for attribution and do little to no original sourcing. On the infrequent occasions that they come up with new information, it’s all in a flurry of self-congratulation.

The faceless onliners have little reason to temper their biases or distinguish news from opinion, and by mingling the two, they tell some damn entertaining stories – ones that really capture the imagination and are just too good to fact check.

At a forum on the shiny new Internet at the Humboldt  County Library in 1996, Jan Kraepelien saw all this coming. He said he wanted news reported in an organized fashion, with standards, by people with training (and I assume, names). I disagreed with him, naively stating that the torrent of news and noise would finally force people to think critically.

After accepting the mainstream media’s narratives for so long, said Mr. Change Is Good, now, at last, people will not just unquestioningly internalize what they read.

Well, that didn’t happen – it’s all gone pear-shaped. We gravitate toward websites that service our pre-existing biases, and facts are useful as long as they don’t slow down the story. In the venomous online world, there always has to be a villain and whoever posts the most penetrating insult wins.

Rather than revile villains, what we really ought to do now is celebrate heroism, like that demonstrated by the young folks in the picture above. They’re eager to be the ones who will spend hours looking up records, knocking on not-always-friendly doors, cajoling sources, traveling to sketchy places and doing the million and one things necessary to put together the news so you know what’s really going on.

They’ll be the ones to tell you what’s working and what needs attention in your town, to celebrate its successes and explicate its shortcomings. They’ll be running the Eye, and in comparing myself at that age to what I see in them now, they’ll be doing a hell of a lot better job of it.

Winding down journalism at Arcata High and letting its noble, longstanding Pepperbox newspaper die would be a terrible, terrible portent for the future of straight-up reporting and for the health of our society.

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