Paul Farhi of the Washington Post issues a resounding apologia for journalists in the American Journalism Review, arguing that the fall of newspapers isn’t their fault. Then Roy Greenslade leaps up with a resounding hear! hear! They echo a defense earlier this year from Adrian Monck (who had decreed, “The crops did not fail because we offended the gods”).
Though I respect these three men, I must call bullshit.
The fall of journalism is, indeed, journalists’ fault.
It is our fault that we did not see the change coming soon enough and ready our craft for the transition. It is our fault that we did not see and exploit — hell, we resisted — all the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people. It is our fault that we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault that we sat back and expected to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron. Responsibility and blame are indeed ours.
Farhi’s rationalization on behalf of his fellow journalists makes many bad assumptions and blind turns and Greenslade only follows him down those alleys, piping in with (my emphases follow) an “unhesitating answer” of no to accusations of journalistic guilt. “There cannot be any doubt that journalists themselves … cannot be held responsible for either the financial woes of the industry nor for the public turning its back on the ‘products’ that contain their work.” He piles on: “They are blameless.” They have “no reason to feel guilty…. It isn’t our fault…. The truth is that we are being assailed by revolutionary technological forces completely outside of our control…. We journalists are not [his emphasis] paying the price for our own (alleged) failures…. you are not the cause of the current calamity.”
The hack doth protest too much.
Farhi assumes that a newspaper is a well-defined product that is no longer supported by classified and retail advertisers and that’s not our fault. He acknowledges that newspapers should be updating their sites, adding Twitter, social networking, Google Maps, and more video. But he ignores the greater need and opportunity to rethink and reinvent journalism itself.
The internet does not just present a few glittery toys. It presents the circumstances to change our relationship with the public, to work collaboratively in networks, to find new efficiencies thanks to the link, to rethink how we cover and present news. No, the essence of the problem is that we thought the internet represented just a new gadget and not a fundamental change in society, the economy, and thus journalism.
By maintaining the newspaper and its newsroom as essentially static entities, Farhi also makes the common and dangerous assumption that their budgets are also fixed: They are what they are because they always have been and so that’s what they need to be. So it’s not their fault that they need to be supported at that level. But newsrooms are terribly inefficient and too many of their expenses were fueled by ego. We bear business responsibility. That is why I am teaching business in a journalism school, so we can be better stewards.
Farhi glosses over — in an unjournalistic way, I’m afraid — the state of the business and its relationship with its public. He brags that almost 50 million Americans still buy papers and so, he argues, readership is not the issue. But circulation is down more than 14 percent since 1970 and since then population has risen by 50 percent, so the adjusted loss is 74 percent. If steady, circulation should be 92 million today. Penetration is roughly half what it was: a mere 17 percent vs. 30 percent. I’d say our relationship with readers is a problem — in more ways than one: A Gallup survey says 52 percent of Americans do not trust news media, up from 30 percent in 1972. Are the two tied? Of course, they are. Who’s responsible for that?
“The critics have it exactly backward,” Farhi says. “Journalists and journalism are the victims, not the cause, of the industry’s shaken state.” Victims? As Farhi says to the critics, “Oh, please.”
Victimhood is an irresponsible abdication of responsibility, a surrender. He might as well declare newspapers dead: Oh, well, we did our best, but everybody around us fucked up and so they’re going to go away now. How dare they do this to us?
My purpose in rebutting Farhi and Greenslade is not to beat up journalists but instead to empower them. The reason to take responsibility for the fall of journalism is to take responsibility for the fate of journalism. Who’s going to try to save it if not for journalists? We are indeed responsible for the future of journalism and we have about one minute to grab that bull by its horns.
(This is why I am holding a conference at CUNY on new business models for news. There is not a minute to waste.)