Reinventing journalism

The traditional media is in a tailspin, but can a new generation of visionaries revive the watchdog press?
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Journalism, the critics say, is dying. The model of news reporting that has dominated the United States for most of the past century — big, well-funded outfits paying reporters and editors to choose and produce what the public reads or views — is crumbling. The main culprits are media consolidation and corporate cutbacks, but the downward spiral is also being fed by declining readership, competition from the Internet, investor expectations, demographic shifts, self-inflicted wounds, and myriad other factors.

This years-long trend is hardly even news anymore, but there were some troubling developments in 2008. Some of the problems facing newspapers and broadcast outlets are the result of a bad economy, but everyone agrees the issues run deeper.

At the same time, however, countervailing forces are gathering momentum, many of them based in California and some in the Bay Area. People who believe in the indispensable role that reporters and editors play in this society are developing news models, ideas for reinventing journalism that could blossom in 2009.

From the Huffington Post and its 8 million monthly visitors to journalism experiments such as Spot.us and the San Francisco Public Press being hatched right here in San Francisco, the media landscape is shifting. As traditional newspapers contract and wrestle with relevance in the online age, Internet-based news organizations are filling the void and seeking to change the rules along the way.

Nowhere was this new reality more on display than last summer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Bay Area new media powerhouses that included MoveOn.org, the Daily Kos, and Digg.com created the Big Tent, which played host to everyone from small-time bloggers to the most powerful politicians and big time political thinkers.

Among them was Arianna Huffington, the HuffPo founder who has become a leading voice for media reform and reinvention. The vision for journalism she espoused from the stage is a familiar one to Guardian readers but apostasy to believers in journalistic objectivity: writing from a progressive perspective to hold the powerful accountable to the public.

"Our highest responsibility is to the truth," Huffington told us in a recent interview. "The truth is not about splitting the difference between one side and the other. Sometimes one side is speaking the truth ... The central mission of journalism is the search for the truth."

But the HuffPo has come under some criticism for not paying its legions of bloggers and for occasionally lifting content from media outlets that do pay their people. Searching for truth may be the central mission of journalism, but news organizations still have to find ways to fairly compensate the people who do so. Citizen journalism and blogging may be wonderful additions to the landscape, but in the end, democracy require reporters. You can't properly cover City Hall or monitor the White House unless it's a full-time job. And that seems to be the big challenge in this era of overextended resources.

 

TOO MANY MERGERS

The mainstream media landscape is bleak. Nearly every major newspaper in the country laid off significant numbers of reporters in the past year. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, among other properties, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, and it's entirely possible that several other big media companies will follow the same path in 2009.

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