Tom Eblen

Good journalism too important to disappear

The boss's e-mail popped into my BlackBerry just as the smiling young lady walked into the school office to escort me to her journalism class. I would have to read it later.

I spent the next hour talking with the smart, engaged students who produce The Lamplighter at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. They wanted to discuss ways to make their monthly newspaper more interesting, relevant, inclusive and professional. I had a wonderful time.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I read the boss's e-mail. It was an update on the latest round of job cuts at the Herald-Leader, which will be announced soon. It also said that, for the first time, most of those who keep their jobs will have their pay cut.

I was glad the high school students didn't want to talk about the future of journalism, because adults ask me about it all the time. They hear about the Rocky Mountain News closing and the San Francisco Chronicle on the brink and they ask, "What's happening to newspapers? Will the Herald-Leader survive?"

It's complicated, I tell them. It has to do with changes in the economy, technology and the ways people communicate. Nobody knows how it will all turn out.

The irony, I tell them, is that there has never been a bigger audience for Herald-Leader journalism. Print circulation has slipped, but online readership has soared.

The Herald-Leader staff's work is no longer confined to once-a-day, regionally distributed ink on paper. We now report news and tell stories instantly to a worldwide audience with as much copy, photos, audio and video as we can produce.

What's more, readers comment on stories as soon as they're published online, offering additional information, corrections and their own views. It has made journalism better and more interesting.

But, as technology has changed the way journalism works, it also has changed the way advertising works. That has dramatically changed the news media's business model.

You see, the money to pay for journalism has never come from journalism; it has always come from advertising. Companies now have more ways to advertise and, in a bad economy, less money to do it with.

That means revenues have fallen for newspapers, radio and TV stations. Online advertising isn't as profitable as with print or broadcast. Online ad revenues are growing, but not fast enough to make up the difference.

Blogs, social networking and video-distribution Web sites have given everyone a voice, and that's great. But journalistic reporting and commentary have been swept up into a larger universe of "media" that has blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment, marketing and advocacy.

Much popular "journalism" these days isn't journalism at all; it's show business, more focused on maximizing profit than in seeking truth, informing the public or promoting healthy discussion.

Take, for example, Fox News Channel's flag-waving, rah-rah coverage of the Iraq War, or the CNBC "personalities" who touted stocks and glorified CEOs rather than doing in-depth reporting and skeptical analysis.

It's no wonder people are confused, because journalists haven't done much to expose these frauds or explain journalism's values to the public. It's sad that some of the best media criticism lately has come not from journalists but from a comedian — The Daily Show's Jon Stewart.

TV, radio changes

A decade ago, the Herald-Leader's news staff stopped growing and started shrinking.

The same thing happened at radio and television stations. Lexington TV news has largely abandoned public affairs reporting to focus on crime, tragedy, sports and weather. There's precious little reporting on commercial radio anymore; it's all "talk."

WVLK still has talk-show hosts who discuss local issues, often based on the Herald-Leader's reporting, but WLAP seems to have redefined its mission as right-wing political advocacy.

When people ask me whether this newspaper will survive, I tell them I'm confident it will. The Herald-Leader remains profitable because no other advertising vehicle in this market comes close to its reach. As long as it has the journalistic muscle to be a must-read for Kentucky's engaged citizens, it will maintain that reach. As the economy improves, advertising will return.

Much of the Herald-Leader's current financial squeeze is the result of debt that the newspaper's parent, The McClatchy Company, took on a couple of years ago to buy its previous owner, Knight Ridder. I can't complain; I welcomed the McClatchy deal.

Some people think local media ownership is always best, but I'm old enough to remember when the Herald and Leader were locally owned — and not very good. Outside ownership has some disadvantages, but it also can insulate journalism from powerful local interests and protect a news organization's credibility.

Reason for pride

I'm proud of the Herald-Leader. Reports about wasteful spending at Blue Grass Airport are the latest of many examples of local public-service journalism you won't find anywhere else. I expect that work will continue, even with fewer people left to do it.

Newspapers aren't about the paper — they're about the news. As the old sayings go: Good newspapers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted; print the news and raise hell. They celebrate success, shine a light on problems and hold government accountable to the public. They tell a community's stories, and they provide informed commentary that sparks public discussion and makes democracy possible.

Good journalism is too important to disappear. So what's the new business model to support it? I don't know, but I'm confident somebody will figure it out. I'm also confident there will be plenty of young people — at Dunbar High School and elsewhere — with the intelligence and commitment to do the work.

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