Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Where Will We Be Without Professional Journalists?

Newspapers now spend $1.6 billion less on reporting and editing than they did a decade ago. i i

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism has found that newspapers now spend $1.6 billion less on reporting and editing than they did a decade ago. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Newspapers now spend $1.6 billion less on reporting and editing than they did a decade ago.

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism has found that newspapers now spend $1.6 billion less on reporting and editing than they did a decade ago.

iStockphoto.com

Last week in this blog, I gave a shout out to a reporter we featured from Haiti who has been reporting from there and the Dominican Republic — not just in the immediate wake of the earthquake, but for years.

I wanted to point out that it makes a difference to have people who really know a subject available to share what they know. And just when I was starting to feel better about life, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism issued its State of the Media 2010 report, highlighting just how many resources have been sucked out of the mainstream media in recent years.

The Pew report says that newspapers now spend $1.6 billion less on reporting and editing than they did a decade ago. Spending by network TV is down by hundreds of millions since its peak in the 1980s, and local TV has cut some 1,600 jobs in the past two years. Only cable news, among commercial news sectors, did not suffer declining revenue and layoffs last year, probably because cable is supported by long-term subscriptions.

The report noted that there is "tremendous energy in efforts around the country to do journalism in the media age" — but while the resources flowing into these efforts seem large on paper, to use a quaint term — about $141 million since 2006 — that is a fraction of the resources pouring out. So what does this mean?

We can't be sure what impact this trend will have over the long term, but it certainly means that we will continue to have fewer people reporting and editing the news.

Technology helps in this field as it does in so many others. I can still remember the wacky little Radio Shack computer I used to file my first stories as a rookie reporter. You could see maybe three or four lines at once, and I still remember the mad scramble to find a pay phone on the road so we could download the files. It was kind of fun because you could actually get your workout in while trying to beat your colleagues to a bank of pay phones. Needless to say we don't do that anymore; with wireless technology you can write, edit and upload your whole piece while munching a sandwich.

The ease of technology today doesn't change the fundamental fact that knowledge is still aggregated by human beings who, for want of a better way to put it, connect the dots for other human beings and then share what they've learned.

Here is the big scary question: Who's going to be left to do that?

Now, I realize there are those who will argue the mainstream media brought this decline on themselves, either by being too slow to adapt to change — like reflecting the increasingly diverse population of the country — or being too ideological without admitting to it and thus turning off conservative news consumers.

The diversity issue is complex — it is true that minorities have had to fight their way into the story, both in the newsrooms and into the narratives those newsrooms are delivering. But if diversity were the only issue, then alternative ethnic media would be in better shape than they are — but they aren't (except for those outlets that focus on lifestyle and entertainment, and not hard news).

The rise of partisan media, which set themselves up as a counter to the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream media, sounds like new news. But it isn't. This has been going on in Europe and Latin America for years, where news outlets are identified with partisan interests. What is new is the American model, where the media have tried to speak to a vital center.

And frankly, those who think the media are unrelentingly liberal are blind to the inherent conservatism and status quo-ism, if I can call it that, of news people, if only because their bias is to the reality they see in front of them. So often their primary sources are people who represent the status quo, like law enforcement, government officials and corporate leaders.

No, I think something else is going on here, and I think what is going on here has as much to do both with our relative affluence, and the sense of entitlement that flows from that, but also, conversely, a sense of disconnection from the forces that shape our lives.

Our ever fancier new phones make us think that because we can download restaurant reviews free, all content is or should be free. And, in my view, the increasing complexity and cost of our politics makes people throw up their hands and plug in those ear buds. But as we know, "freedom isn't free" — and neither is knowledge. So what are we going to do about it, people?

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues