Who Will Be The Gatekeepers?

by Paul Bernish 

By now, news of the demise of daily newspapers across the U.S. is no longer news.  In city after city, familiar names like the Detroit Free Press, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Minneapolis Tribune . . . (the list, alas, gets progressively longer nearly every day) . . . announce draconian actions to save on costs by limiting home delivery, stanch the bleeding by switching to online only, or as in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, simply going out of business.

The public’s reaction to this journalistic cataclysm has been altogether muted, if not downright indifferent.  The blogosphere has adopted a tone of “I told you so” haughtiness, suggesting that in the age of the (so called) “New Media,” it was well past time for newspapers to go the way of the Great Auk.  As for the journalists at the affected papers, and their colleagues in newsrooms that are still functioning (albeit increasingly on life support), there is understandably no other story:  a way of life and a professional career are passing into irrelevance.  Tough news to swallow, especially when a lot of Web 2.0 types assert that social media networks like Twitter are more than capable of supplanting daily journalism as the preferred media platform keeping people informed on the vital issues of the day.

What I find most missing is any cogent analysis of what we, as consumers of news, actually will be missing as daily newspapers disappear:  the gatekeeper function of professionally trained editors whose job it has been to protect truth from fiction, facts from rumor, accuracy from error, straightforward reporting from opinion and PR manipulation, and the daily assurance of credibility.

Daily journalism is no paragon of unassailable virtue, by any means.  Bias, prejudice, mistakes and much else have always appeared in the pages of all papers every day.  Rank sensationalism, tawdry preening, and an inexhaustible fixation with the odd, the outrageous and the horrifying have given newspapering a lousy reputation overall, ranking down in the lower depths of public regard alongside used car salesmen and (these days) AIG executives.

Yet it’s a case of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water if we accept the dubious premise offered up by bloggers and gurus of “consumer generated content” that just about anyone with a pc, a cell phone and an internet connection is a bona fide, self-credentialed journalist.

Not everyone – by a longshot – possesses the ability to absorb, digest and report information that is at once accurate and comprehensive and also free of bias.  Professionals learn how to do this in j-school classrooms and under the tutelage of experienced editors.  It’s the path I took, which led me to a decade of daily journalism with the Wall Street Journal and the Charlotte Observer, among other papers.

A tried and tested Reporting 101 drill underscores this point:  the instructor shows a brief video of a car crash, and then the students are asked to write a story based upon what they’ve just seen.  In a class of 20, at the beginning of the semester, there will be 20 widely varying accounts; the drill repeated at the end of the semester will produce stories that are much more accurate and complete, because the students will (hopefully) have learned how to see, hear and digest bits of data that make up an event.

Editors serve another, vastly under-appreciated role: protecting the public from the manipulation of news.  Top editors have a highly developed, finely tuned BS meter that enables them to spot blatant (and often highly sophisticated) efforts to skew reporting to fit a particular point of view.  Nowhere is this sensibility more important than in political and economic/business coverage.  Elected officials and corporate executives employ legions of public relations and marketing advisers to provide spin control; savvy political reporters and business editors are typically adept at spotting the manipulation and at least attempting to pursue the real story.  One who is especially good at this is Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show is as close to the fine tradition of muckraking journalism as there exists in all the media — itself a significant commentary on how news gathering and reporting is evolving before our eyes.

As papers shrink or disappear, and traditional journalism is threatened, how raw content is filtered – if at all – becomes an increasingly vital question to the interests of an informed public.  The initial indications are not good.  The New York Times reports, for example, that as the Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer newspaper goes over to an online version only, it is hiring a stable of former government officials to write content.  Who’s going to tell the ex-Mayor of Seattle that his copy is filled with holes large enough for a tramp steamer to sail through?

Right now, in the view of most long-time journalism critics and observers, the future of news reporting and editing is up in the air. What can be said for certain is that there are several thousand dispirited reporters and editors in newsrooms across America who have served the ideal of a free, open and discerning press, but whose days in that essential role are numbered.     


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