Journalism matters? A reporter questions whether it does.

By Maggie Lee

I admit, I may have sent the eyeroll emoji to a colleague on the other side of a borrowed meeting room in Ansley Park when the board of the Atlanta Press Club settled on a tagline: “journalism matters.”

We’ve since had tote bags and hats and coffee cups printed up for this campaign. And then the social media people came around asking board members to write a statement or sit and do a minute or two video on why “journalism matters.”

I dodged them and their cameras. I couldn’t think of any reason why “journalism matters.”

I could think of a lot of the opposite.

For one, we’re not really popular. Don’t they always say reporters are about as well-regarded as politicians and used car dealers? Young people don’t follow the news near as much as their elders. Cat and dog videos will beat any report on anything else.

For two, folks in power know there are few consequences if they ignore laws requiring them to produce public records. Or if their media strategy is to ignore the media.(Heck, the obstruction gets pretty blatant, witness the texts between two city staff who tried to stop the release of water bills for then-Mayor Kasim Reed and his brother.)

A session on digital storytelling, held Saturday in Chicago during an annual journalism conference. Credit: Maggie Lee

A session on digital storytelling, held Saturday in Chicago during an annual journalism conference. Credit: Maggie Lee

And for three, the economics are so awful, there’s a sense of fatalism anyway. The public is now used to free news and free classifieds. It used to be much easier to make money on the news, back when advertisers had no email, texts or social media to entice customers. Or when news wasn’t served on a kind of limitless sheet of paper where ad space isn’t very valuable.

So it was despite these thoughts of futility I headed to Chicago late last week for the annual conference of the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting.

I knew I’d meet data journalists. They make the amazing graphics at top papers, Or they get information and extract stories or practical leads from it. Or they design or archive web sites, apps and videos. Or they do some combination of that and more.

And I knew I’d meet people who do investigative stuff. NICAR is a project of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit.

What I saw a lot of smart people at work, and not just from the huge national papers that cover big stories.

There was a lady from small Pennsylvania paper that reported on where the most car crashes happen in their area, and prodded officials about road design and speed enforcement. A small Vermont paper reverse-engineered Airbnb’s web site to count the number of homes for vacation rental in their ski towns. Reporters asked if the unexpectedly large number of rentals was the best thing for their communities.

And lest you think it’s all nerdy, there’s the story from Washington state about salvaging roadkill.

Journalism has its problems, no doubt. Newsrooms skew old, white and coastal. For print, the economics don’t look good.

But I saw again that news stories can trigger public investigations. They shine a light on who’s abusing power, misspending public money.

They even uncover chefs who lie about where they get their alleged “local farm” ingredients. And it was reporters — WSB-TV — who obtained and published the texts showing city staff trying to withhold Reed’s water bill records.

And that investigative or data stuff is only a tiny piece of what journalism is, anyway.

It’s also enjoyable stories, photographs, videos, voices of the people who share the world. Reporting confers a great privilege: getting to hear from all kinds of different people every day.

And I looked up that public perception of reporters. In 2013, just over a quarter of survey respondents thought journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being. But then again, a 2016 survey found three-quarters of respondents think that news organizations keep political leaders in check – preventing them from doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.

Maybe there’s reason for optimism? TV still sells ads. There’s a podcast boom on. And people are setting up journalism nonprofits. Reporters have computing power that Woodward and Bernstein could only have dreamed of in the 70s.

So in one of the temporary partitioned rooms in a Chicago hotel ballroom, I got to thinking, maybe journalism does matter.

3 replies
  1. Chris Johnston says:

    Maggie, journalism could matter once again if journalists returned to their roots. I have been reading Atlanta newspapers almost daily since the 1950s (I preferred The Journal over The Constitution). Reporters reported, editors cleaned things up, and the editorial page was separate. Today, reporters want to slant their work as an opinion piece. Editors seem nonexistent since I see grammatical and spelling errors galore and headlines often don’t agree with the article body. The editorial pages present themselves as balanced but are heavily tilted to the political left. I suspect Ralph McGill and Eugene Patterson are rolling in their graves.
    My sibling is a retired journalist who graduated summa cum laude from UGA Grady School. We have great fun picking apart today’s “journalism.”Report

    Reply
  2. Chris Johnston says:

    Yesterday the politically far left Denver Post cut 1/3 of its newsroom staff because of financial losses. Looking at discussion sites, the locals who posted were sad about 30 people losing their jobs but not sad about the newpaper’s plight. Many comments were similar to mine above. In particular, they were uniformly offended by opinion presented as news.
    I wonder if the AJC will take note of this. Their next circulation retreat may be to the core counties of the metro area.Report

    Reply

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