Again, About the Death of the Dinosaurs
I don’t know what it is about Fridays, but interesting articles about the demise of newspapers keep showing up on my desk each week. So far we’ve heard from two newspapermen, one who suggested we are on the brink of a revolution in journalism and another who traced the paperdämmerung to three men considered pioneers in the industry.
This week I came across a former newspaper editor and current Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judge who links faltering investigative journalism with a loss of accountability in government. It’s tucked into the end of this opinion released yesterday (PDF) about a police officer who released an internal memo to a newspaper. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s concurring opinion starts on page 21. It’s very short. The heart of it:
It is well known that the advent of the Internet and the economic downturn have caused traditional news organizations throughout the country to lose circulation and advertising revenue to an unforeseen extent. As a result, the staffs and bureaus of newsgathering organizations—newspapers and television stations alike—have been shuttered or shrunk. Municipal and statehouse coverage in particular has too often been reduced to low-hanging fruit. The in-depth investigative report, so essential to exposure of public malfeasance, may seem a luxury even in the best of economic times, because such reports take time to develop and involve many dry (and commercially unproductive) runs. And in these most difficult of times, not only investigative coverage, but substantive reports on matters of critical public policy are increasingly shortchanged. So, for many reasons and on many fronts, intense scrutiny of the inner workings of massive public bureaucracies charged with major public responsibilities is in deep trouble.
The verdict is still out on whether the Internet and the online ventures of traditional journalistic enterprises can help fill the void left by less comprehensive print and network coverage of public business. While the Internet has produced information in vast quantities, speedy access to breaking news, more interactive discussion of public affairs and a healthy surfeit of unabashed opinion, much of its content remains derivative and dependent on mainstream media reportage. It likewise remains to be seen whether the web—or other forms of modern media—can replicate the deep sourcing and accumulated insights of the seasoned beat reporter and whether niche publications and proliferating sites and outlets can provide the community focus on governmental shortcomings that professional and independent metropolitan dailies have historically brought to bear.
There are pros and cons to the changing media landscape, and I do not pretend to know what assets and debits the future media mix will bring. But this I do know—that the First Amendment should never countenance the gamble that informed scrutiny of the workings of government will be left to wither on the vine. That scrutiny is impossible without some assistance from inside sources such as Michael Andrew [the plaintiff]. Indeed, it may be more important than ever that such sources carry the story to the reporter, because there are, sad to say, fewer shoeleather journalists to ferret the story out.