Don’t I see the writing on the wall?

Whenever I tell people that I’m a journalism student, let alone one with the intention of entering the field after I graduate, the reactions fall into three distinct categories:

  1. The shocktopus: This type of reaction betrays the fact that the person thought that journalism has gone the way of the dodo, joining haberdashers and cobblers in the pantheon of gloriously anachronistic professions. The person often asks follow-up questions akin to “Oh, what website do you write for” and “What, you mean like a blogger? I have a blog.” The idea that there are those of us who still labor to produce movable printed type astounds them.
  2. The superfan #1: This type of reaction belongs to somebody who see themselves as intellectuals. They own an honest-to-God subscription to THE New York Times and read it cover to cover every day, thank you very much. They lambaste broadcast news and the evils of its 24-hour newscycles, and sniff at the paltry news offerings from cable talking heads. They congratulate you for being a journalist. They tell you how important it is to “keep fighting the good fight.” I normally like these kinds of people.
  3. The Debbie Downers: As much as I enjoy the overly enthusiastic reactions from the biggest fans, this is by far the most common reaction. People cock their heads to the side, furrow their brow in concentration and a permutation of one, simple question “Why?” Why would I bother being a journalist when newspapers are dying faster than Charlie Sheen at a Detroit comedy show? Why enter a field that is shrinking more dramatically than the protagonists of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?” Why cast my lot in a trade that rejects almost all of my puns?

A few days ago, I went into a bar in Tucson to unwind after a long day at work. Since I was bored, I struck up a conversation with a woman who happened to be sitting by herself at the bar. I introduced myself and we got to talking.

“So, what do you do?” she asked, taking a sip of her brightly-colored beverage.

“I’m a journalist,” I responded.

Immediately, her eyes narrowed. After a few awkward moments where I considered slipping away as quietly as possible, she spoke.

“Why?” she asked. “Can’t you see the writing on the wall?”

This encounter, which, needless to say ended rather soon after this exchange, made me think in a way that I rarely ever have. Whenever somebody questions the wisdom of my career choice, I usually respond with a well-rehearsed stump speech about the importance of speaking truth to power and a well-informed populace, but this time I hadn’t. It wasn’t this woman’s reaction that got me, I’m used to it by now, nor was it her tone, I’ve heard far worse. It was the phrase she used, “the writing on the wall.”

This got me thinking, what exactly is the writing on the wall?

It’s no secret that newspapers, long the bastions of reporters, are dwindling rapidly, finding it more and more difficult to reach profitability in a world where most people want to be entertained, not informed, want to see their beliefs pandered to, not questioned. Newspapers which once held a virtual monopoly on information itself, now have to deal with a burgeoning blogosphere, teeming masses of “citizen journalists” and the stigma that they operate as little more than a leftist, liberal limb.

The Internet, once hailed as the reporter’s greatest tool, is now driving a stake into the heart of traditional journalism.

I once attended a conference where a longtime reporter described the Internet’s affect on journalism like this. In the beginning, journalism was a party in a large ballroom. Everyone could fit, conversations flowed freely and there was plenty of food for everyone.  After a while, though, the party began to get crowded, drowning out some of the conversations. The only way people could be heard above the din was to gather closely to talk about similar things, or to say something so outrageous they dominated the conversation. Food, once shared freely, couldn’t support the larger crowds, so everyone took smaller and smaller portions. This continued until the room became so crowded that everyone was shouting over one another to be heard and food became so scarce that some could only get scraps leftover by others.

The point of the metaphor was obvious. Back in the heyday of newspapers, there was plenty of information to go around. Smaller, local newspapers carved out niches as experts in their areas, while larger, national newspapers provided general, blanket coverage to people who may not know what is going on outside of their town. Journalism filled a useful and necessary role in society, it was a window to parts of the world one might never see otherwise.

Suffice to say, things are different now. With information tools becoming everyday utilizations, with some like Google and Twitter even entering the common vernacular as verbs, it’s easier than ever for people outside of the field to do reporting. Anyone with an Internet connection can find someone’s phone number, do an interview and post the results on their Tumblr or Blogspot account. Hell, if they’re proud enough of their work they can post it to Twitter and Facebook for all of their friends to see.

Now, I’m not trying to take anything from bloggers, I know quite a few and like most of them. I even have my own blog, which you happen to be reading. Lucky you!

Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that people see this as the future of journalism. Whether it be the so-called Facebook revolutions in the Middle East or the accidental live-Tweeting of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, everywhere you look there are testaments to the power and the impact of these new forms of information sharing. With the rampant public demand for news as it happens, how can traditional news sources operate at such a disadvantage?

The answer, of course, is simple. There is an ocean of differences that separates journalists from the common blogger. A journalist is held to a code of ethics, standards of practice befitting the profession. Every claim, fact and statement is gone over exhaustively in order to ensure its veracity and multiple people vet each story to try and provide as many failsafes as possible.

Bloggers, however, are beholden to no one. They can write anything about anyone, and often do so in order to fit their own ends. A blogger can throw anything to the wall to see if it sticks, claiming no responsibility when they were wrong by crowing their credit when they happen to be right. After all, anyone can yell “fire” in a crowded theater, but just because they’re right doesn’t mean they’re a human smoke detector.

I think back to the events of the Jan. 8 shootings, where Twitter blew up with rumors over the shooter’s identity, how many people had been shot and the fate of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It didn’t take long for those rumors to become fact, making even those bastions of truthfulness at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News claim that they had it on “good authority” that Rep. Giffords was dead.

Five months later and celebrating a birthday, I’m sure she would beg to differ.

These are the pitfalls with an information-crazed society. The emphasis is shifting toward getting it first, not getting it right. After all, a retraction is temporary, a scoop is forever. The problem with this approach is it’s about as accurate as a backyard game of HORSE. Sure, you might be able to make that jumping, between-the-legs sweeping skyhook with your left hand, but that doesn’t mean the NBA should be knocking down your door.

After all, even The National Enquirer (which has been sued for libel at least three times in the last decade) has won a Pulitzer.

Journalism isn’t dying, it isn’t about to be taken up to Obsoletion Heaven on a pillar of fire to kick it with eight-tracks and LaserDiscs. Because as the field changes and the mediums become more fluid, the need for good, solid journalism becomes that much more important. The Internet may have made it easier for anyone to be a journalist, but it’s also made it far easier for younger reporters to hone and develop their craft. And that speaks volumes for the future of the industry.

Back at the bar, the woman stared at me, her question hanging in the air. I finished my beer and stood up.

“Why?” I said. “Because I want to be the person who writes on the wall.”

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2 thoughts on “Don’t I see the writing on the wall?

  1. Luke- this was an amazing piece of writing! Submit it somewhere! Couple of typos (I think)…

    1. Why cast my lost in a trade…. Shouldn’t this be ” Why cast my lot in a trade”….?

    2. I’m sure they would beg to differ.Shouldn’t this be” I’m sure she would beg to differ.” ?

    3. …but it’s also made it for easier for younger reporters… Shouldn’t this be “but it’s also made it far easier for younger reporters”…?

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