Sunday, April 19, 2009

The State of Play and other pressing matters

The new movie State of Play should have been titled State of the Press. Within a twisted plot that weaves in and out of politics, corporate corruption and intimate relationships, the story is really about the changing nature of print journalism.
Russell Crowe plays veteran newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey. A classic slob, Cal's desk in the Washington Globe newsroom is overrun by stacks of paper and yellowed press clips tacked to the wall. He drives a beat up car littered with reporters note pads, junk food wrappers and crap du jour.
The cynical, unkempt McAffrey isn’t without his fans, though. He’s managed to attract a slew of trustworthy inside sources who are willing to help him find the good stuff even at the risk of their own hides. McAffrey doesn’t care whether he looks good or wins any popularity contests. His mission is more than skin deep. He’s got to find the truth and tell the story. Even at the risk of getting shot or getting fired or losing close friends or losing sight of some journalistic mores.
He is, after all, pursuing truth. I'm not defending some of his choices, but how many journalists distill their mission down to those two words? "Pursuing truth." Not many, I fear.
Recently my fellow reporter Chris Casacchia estimated that of all journalism graduate students at Arizona State University at least 70 percent are planning careers in public relations. Not reporting. I was stunned.
A fatter paycheck awaits in PR, of course. Plus, the reality is that newspapers are going out of business quicker than you can yell, “Extra. Extra. Read all about it!” It's also a very stressful profession. According to research conducted at the University of Manchester in England, being a journalist is as stressful as being a prison guard or an airline pilot.
Deadlines are called deadlines for a reason.
In the movie, McAffrey knows the journalism landscape is shifting. The Globe has hired a beautiful young cub reporter to write a political “lite” blog. He doesn’t take her too seriously at first, but then challenges her to be more than a journalistic lightweight. The dialog between McAffrey and newbie Della Frye allows them to touch on some timely issues facing the fourth estate. But not too much. This is entertainment, after all.
So, I will state the obvious.
Media conglomerates that are publicly-held corporations own most of the newspapers. For them, it’s the earnings, stupid. Truth and disclosure might be nice, but not at the expense of profit and keeping shareholders content.
Plus, it’s really getting expensive to keep those industrial age newspaper presses running in this age of online accessibility. That's just fact.
The movie, as we all know, isn't fact, but it is fun. In the end, the oldster and youngster team up to get the scoop, risking life and limb in the process. The exclusive is pounded out just in the nick of time. The presses roll and the front page shouts to the masses that once again serious journalism has performed an heroic duty.
God, it made me feel wonderful. I love being a journalist. What an awesome career.
Not that it’s a safe one. Nor should it be.
Take, for example, tomorrow. There may be a pink slip waiting. Reporters have been let go in droves the past several years. The economics of newsprint aren’t working any more. Then, there's the issue of diminishing ad revenues due to the bad economy. But also, there are so many other advertising vehicles. Never again will newspapers be the only game in town. In fact, it hasn't been that way for a long time.
In the meantime there will be a revolution of sorts. There will be blood, or at least rivers of ink no longer needed in the age of cyberspace. Somehow the profession will survive. But will it survive with integrity?
Journalists, this is our moment to speak. Investigative reporting still matters. Thoughtful storytelling still matters. Passion still matters. Pursuing the truth is an honorable mission.
Publishers, this is your moment to invest in truth and commit to the cost of employing quality journalists who aren’t afraid to chase the truth. Stop the presses, if you must, but don’t stop pressing for reporting that matters.

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