Journalist Calls on News Media to Stop Giving it Away for Free - UnPlug News Sites for a Week, Starting July 4

Whether we get our news from the net, the papers or TV, journalist T. J. Sullivan says if you want facts and hard investigative reporting, it's time to save journalists and news-gathering organizations.
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Where does breaking news and the facts behind them come from? Mind you, it's not just opinions I'm asking about, or 'news' dished out by "cut and paste" artists! Whom do whistleblowers depend on? How do we keep our politicians in check ? Who do we depend on to look behind the cover-ups and to dig deeper on a news story ? Who are the people who make sure they're getting the facts straight?

Journalists and News Organizations -- that's who, even if they aren't a 100% unbiased! If the current chaos is any indication, newspapers are a dying breed. But wait, isn't the 'net here to step in and take over? After all, I haven't subscribed to an actual newspaper in forever and get all my news online and from NPR.

Whether we get our news from the net or the papers or TV, journalist T. J. Sullivan says if you want facts and hard investigative reporting, it's time to save journalists and news-gathering organizations, even if not the medium of paper. No matter where you get to know of it finally, chances are a story began as a newspaper story. Towards that end, Sullivan has begun an online petition, that asks news organizations to plug their virtual freebies for one week in July this year, so that readers understand just how valuable news-gathering is, especially to a democracy.

"I hope the goal of the petition is realized, that newspapers and The Associated Press actually unplug their Web sites for one week starting July 4, 2009," he says. According to Sullivan, unless all American newspapers and The Associated Press, switch to a pay-for mode even online, newspapers and with it democracy, will begin to fold.

Why do you care so much about the current state of the newspaper industry, and why does its health impact the rest of us?

T.J.: "I've been a journalist for more than 20 years, 15 years of which I spent working full-time as a reporter at daily newspapers. I've covered government at every level, and just about everything else you might imagine. All told, I've worked on the staffs of four newspapers in three western American states and, during that time, I was fortunate enough to have my work recognized many times, a list of honors that includes the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest national journalism awards program in the US after the Pulitzer Prize.

I began this petition for the same reason I became a journalist, because I'm incapable of remaining idle as bullies, crooks or fools seek to obfuscate people with lies and misinformation."

Can volunteer bloggers fill the shoes of trained journalists or is that like saying an X-Ray technician can replace the physician?

T.J: "Professionally staffed and ethically bound newspapers help to keep government honest at every level. And yes, readers and bloggers must in turn help to keep their local newspapers honest. But, some people have gone so far as to assert that newspapers can be easily replaced by volunteer bloggers, which is as ludicrous at the local level as it is at the international level. Again, this isn't just about covering D.C., or wars and conflicts abroad. It's about reporting on local politics, where the scoundrels involved are just as skilled as anybody in D.C. when it comes to using bully tactics to get their way.

Playing reporter isn't just some game. The injustices exposed by journalists in even the smallest markets can cost crooks big money, and retaliation is often carried out against reporters in a variety of ways. Lets also not forget that in some countries reporters are murdered for publishing the truth. This is a real profession. This is serious work.

What volunteer blogger covering the local city council is going to risk his or her family's well-being to pursue a story against the wishes of some scandalous corporate entity capable of financing an entirely baseless libel lawsuit simply to silence a critic? These things happen more than most people realize. Hence the petition. "

If saving news-gathering is your intention, can't TV and Radio fill the void that maybe left with the demise of papers?

T.J: "The fact is, newspapers as news-gathering organizations produce the bulk of reporting in the United States. They're in towns large and small from coast to coast and border to border, in Alaska and in Hawaii. They cover places so small the places aren't even officially designated as towns. Without a doubt, newspapers in the US outnumber radio and television news programs many times over. Newspapers cover markets that the TV cameras rarely visit except in response to some great tragedy, or very special event. And radio news, by nature of its medium, is often so busy being reactive to the events of the day that, on the whole, it produces little in terms of enterprise or investigative reporting. There are, of course, exceptions like National Public Radio, but even they've experienced drastic staff reductions in the past few months.

Yes, television and radio news reporters break plenty of stories. No doubt about it. Let's hope we never lose the CBS program 60 Minutes. But, besides that, television and radio reporters follow newspaper reports far more often than newspapers follow TV and radio reports. TV and radio lack both the resources and the air time to do the job of newspapers. Three-minute news reports can't hope to adequately communicate the complexities of our most serious issues.

I hope this petition, at the very least, results in more people becoming informed about the news-gathering and news-delivery processes. They need to realize that the work of newspaper reporters and newspaper photographers often ends up being regurgitated on the Internet and through The Associated Press. People need to know that, even though all the bylines are hacked off, there's still a publication out there that employed the people it took to produce those news reports.

Do you feel this particular disconnect is a side effect of the Internet?

T.J: "Definitely. Back in the early 1990s, for example, when readers in New York City purchased copies of The New York Times to get the news, they knew the source of what they were reading because they had to purchase it. And even then, they sometimes mistook Associated Press stories produced by other newspapers as New York Times copy simply because it appeared in The New York Times. On the Internet the situation is worse. Once online news is stripped of its brand and repackaged by countless unassociated providers, the public perceives the product as being free. It's devalued. It's similar to the way so many people perceive water. As long as it's running out the tap, who cares where it came from, or who produced it?

The Internet most certainly represents the present and future of newspapers. No question about it. But there won't be a future if Americans in and outside of the journalism industry fail to recognize the problem for what it is and begin working together towards a solution. I make no apologies for how the newspaper owners have botched this whole thing. Much as it would make me feel good to point fingers and say, 'You shouldn't have done this,' now is not the time. Right now the industry as a whole needs to work with everyone else to find a way to make these news organizations economically viable while remaining entirely independent of government.

What's a possible solution?

T.J,: Maybe the answer is a pay-to-access system, as suggested in Time magazine this week by its former managing editor, Walter Isaacson. Maybe there's a way to do what US comedian and commentator Jon Stewart recently suggested, to mimic a music industry model in which radio stations (or, in this case, blogs and aggregate news sites) pay a royalty per spin for each song played (substitute "spins" with "clicks" on hyperlinks to newspaper stories). That sounds promising, but I don't have any idea how to make it work. I don't claim to have the answer to the industry's woes, nor do I clam to know as much about the industry as Mr. Isaacson. I'm just a writer. But I know enough to realize that without professionally staffed and ethically bound newspapers, America's democracy will suffer. The Fourth Estate is a vital component of our system of government and it must not be allowed to be diminished as a result of ignorance or apathy."

As of Feb. 25 the petition has been written up by nearly 50 different Web and print publications. The YouTube video explaining its intent has been viewed more than 2,400 times. Yet, the petition has fewer than 210 signatures. Further, are newspapers biting at the bait?

T.J: "I understood from the onset that this was going to be a hard sell. Journalists, by nature, avoid signing petitions at all costs. It's part of the journalistic code of ethics, to avoid the appearance of impropriety, to not take sides, especially when they stand to personally benefit from the outcome.

Americans need to be encouraged to care, or at least understand why they should care. They need to realize what they stand to lose before it's gone and be made aware of the colossal domino effect that the loss of newspapers is having on both democracy and every other type of news-gathering organization -- TV, radio, wire services, etc...

I wish I could show you some of the e-mails I'm getting, but as the senders did not intend them to be published, it wouldn't be right to share them. Most of the notes express support for the effort. Of those that express opposition, however, many also demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of our system of government, as well as a penchant for ad hominem attacks.

Much of this is also apparent in the responses to the petition that have been posted in the Blogosphere. The variations are extreme. Web sites that write for the American journalism industry seem to get it. They understand that this situation is dire. But many of those outside the journalism industry, the sites that write for a more general audience, don't seem to have a clue.

For example, one such response can be found at Wonkette. First off, this particular blogger mischaracterizes the petition effort as being about saving newsprint when, in fact, it's about saving news-gathering organizations, not the medium of paper. Let's be clear on that point. This is not about saving paper. After that, the blogger goes on to state that newspaper journalism is a "profession of over-educated, overpaid typists" who during the past eight years conspired to look the other way "while actual murdering criminals ran the White House."

Much as such vitriol might get a laugh or two, it echos an alarming level of ignorance about the news-gathering process, and democracy. The entire argument ignores the enormity of the crisis, and thereby exacerbates it. I understand how good it might feel to play a game of shoot the messenger, but it accomplishes nothing. Besides that, the issue at hand is about far more than the few newspapers that can afford to cover Washington, D.C. The fact is that most American newspapers are located in small-to-medium-sized markets where they fulfill vital roles in their communities, the most important of which is covering local government, everything from PTA meetings on up to city councils and state legislatures. "

As a DuPage County resident, I know only too well what T.J. Sullivan speaks of. Local elections to the College of DuPage board, in recent days, has been rocked by scandal and allegations of corruption and power grabs. I've signed the petition, because yes, while free news is great, it's even better to actually be informed, educated citizens rather than being a people used to half-baked pies.

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