The 20,000 journalism jobs lost in the past 18 months are flushing knowledge
and experience out of American newsrooms, diminishing our lives and our
democracy. The brain drain is exacting penalties that society may live to
As professionals depart paid journalism, secrecy and corruption
will flourish. Fear of public exposure is one of the few brakes on such
behavior. The American Society of Journalists and Authors represents
independent journalists, and our members are among those striving to pick up
the slack in investigative journalism.
Veteran journalists are being pushed aside for beginning reporters without
watchdog experience. What's filling news holes are superficial events
coverage and fast "content" production that's farmed out to wire services,
usually without reporters' bylines. The Internet, with few exceptions, is
not replacing newspapers and magazines in providing paychecks for
It took the public months to learn that there were no weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq because news outlets did not challenge the
administration's story. The Associated Press reports that the Pentagon
budget for public relations has increased by 63 percent since 2004 as it
struggles for support of the Iraq war. The military will spend at least $4.7
billion in 2009, according to the AP. Imagine the challenge of journalists
to get past the strength of this promotional marketing. If there's something
to uncover here, it likely won't be discovered by a diminished press corps.
As financial support of serious journalism evaporates, reporters and editors
will be reduced to chronicling the obvious, and dramatizing rather than
digging. "If it bleeds, it leads" will become our society's ticket to
information. That is one slim newsfeed.
Enterprise reporting costs news venues money. The payoff is in
information-news that communities need to be healthy.
This lament of a diminished world just isn't the tears of men and women
practicing outdated technology. The need for knowing what is happening in
our world is universal and eternal, no matter how it's transmitted.
What does it mean to lose the voices of those who hold our institutions
accountable? How can we avoid the regret of a ruined system that once paid
attention, if not perfectly, at least with professional standards, to school
boards, health departments, legislatures, charities and corporations?
Investigative journalism is important. It saves lives and protects the
public from corruption. How did we learn that the wood in playground
equipment was treated with serious cancer-causing preservatives? Or that
our government paid for poor patients to be injected with plutonium for
horrifying medical research that killed and maimed them? We know these facts
because reporters told us. Improvements in society don't come without a
push. It's often news reporting that's behind legislatures, regulators, and
trade groups finally acting to clean up abuses.
Our vigorous free press is one of the beacons that set America apart.
But those of us in the profession are watching with horror at how quickly
that light is being extinguished and how little the public seems to care.
There is the possibility that freelance writers will be tapped to fill the
void as newspapers and magazines lose staff, but managers still need to find
the money for serious journalism, whether on-staff or off. During the
transition to whatever comes next for investigative reporting, the public
should know what it's missing.
We hope that media companies will recognize the value of professional
watchdogs in the journalism community. Readers must let their news
providers know that they want in-depth coverage of issues that matter.
Without an outcry, we'll be left with pale imitations of news we need.