By Marlene Lang
Journalists? It can be unpleasant listening to us listen to ourselves. On our best days, we are eloquent. At our worst, we are windbags.
And while the Internet transforms logophiles into Web masters – at threat of layoff – there are still young people out there aspiring to this noble profession, even as it is vilified.
It’s a profession that I’ve always believed defended freedom by keeping citizens informed and providing a venue for the exchange of ideas. It is grand stuff to be the eyes and ears of the voting public, who are generally too busy to attend municipal meetings and find out first hand who is voting how on the fate of their tax dollars. It is a sweet thing to watch elected officials behave a little differently because they know “the Press” is at the meeting. It is a fine feeling to hope that, come re-election time, newspaper readers may recall the voting record of whomever they entrusted to represent them. I like to think that they vote more wisely because a low-paid reporter was there when it happened and wrote about it.
Some young people get it.
Ryan Keating may be one such young one. The University of Illinois journalism student e-mailed me, gathering input for a project, asking unanswerable questions, like, “Why did you decide to become a journalist?”
The final responsibility for a free press and an informed public lies with that same public.
This is akin to your 4-year-old asking you where babies come from. Ryan may have been too young and tender to hear the strange truth. Why, indeed, does anyone become a journalist? There is the above-stated sense of helping save democracy by contributing to an informed citizenship. And there is the windbag syndrome, of course. But as newspaper readership shrinks and online reports wax scant with actual information, many of us in the field have begun to wonder, ourselves, why we do this. Angry journalist-bloggers complain of feeling like bits of the Borg. We’re asked to “generate content,” when we set out to report facts and tell true stories.
Investigative journalism – that old-fashioned muckraking – is expensive. The bigger the newspaper, the more spent on serious investigation, but let’s face it; the muck is deep, the rakers few. It’s a bottomless sewer, beckoning those of us born with the handicap of smelling a rat when one is in the room.
Wherever Americans happen to live, chances are their trusty newspaper has trimmed staff in over the last decade, not re-filling spots that are vacated, consolidating holdings and making do with less – as they develop their “Web presence.”
Is it a bad thing? No. There is so much more information out there, more easily available than ever. Amazing. Phenomenal. Awesome, even.
Still, Internet or inky paper, it seems the shenanigans of those in power forever outweigh the expose. Why is this?
I’ll tell you why: because journalism is a business and readers – who are the customers we serve – get what they want. It’s a danger, because journalists can’t be so beholden to advertisers that we become entertainment whores masquerading as deliverers of news. Or can we?
Ryan asked me more than five years ago if I thought “the newspaper industry can be turned around?” If he means, will readers give up Internet video news clips and Tweets and go back to buying a printed paper every day: I doubt it.
The more important question is whether the news industry can remain watchdogs of democracy. One of my journalist heroes, Bill Moyers, had stated that the hope for such a turnaround lies with independent, alternative publications, those rough-and-tumble rags raised up by young idealists, questioning authority, inspired by old rebels and sages. I don’t disagree with Mr. Moyers, but I think any established newspaper, any Website or any independent “rag” can do the job. The SouthtownStar, I told Ryan, has never limited what I can say in this column. Its reporters are free to report what they find while out on assignment. Thank goodness.
The final responsibility for a free press and an informed public lies with that same public. Newspapers continue to shrink, while Facebook, Twitter and Google flourish. The line is continually fudged between information and entertainment. But in the end, readers get the news they deserve; the few who want the truth will be served by the few who are willing to dig it up, for whatever pay they get.
Go, Ryan Keating.
A version of this column was originally published by the SouthtownStar, Sun-Times Media. This edition is property of Marlene Lang Copyright 2017.
Marlene Lang, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Joseph University. She previously worked for more than a decade as a government reporter, editor, and columnist.