Kvetch of the Week: Don’t wait, agitate!

No sooner had L.A. Observed writer T.J. Sullivan penned his eulogy for newspapers (and every media writer’s seemingly got to have one) . . .

“Ever wonder what the world would have been like if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hadn’t uncovered Watergate? I fear we’ll learn the answer in the next couple decades.”

. . . than the figure who kept urging the Washington Post reporters to “follow the money” died.

Mark Felt was 95, and the former No. 2 man at the FBI was not revealed as “Deep Throat” until he admitted so a few years ago. deepthroatWoodward and Bernstein protected their source until he decided to come forward, and for many lamenting journalists this is a bittersweet symbol of an endangered printed daily news form.

The source of Sullivan’s ire is the decline of investigative journalism at a time when it’s needed more than ever (isn’t it always?). He riffed on a New York Times piece by David Carr about how a vigorous press must exist to root out and track corrupted officials, such as accused Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and how in the world is this ever to be done as newspapers cut reporters and news hole:

“Newspapers don’t matter. Otherwise people would be reading them. . . More newspapers will close and, soon, some journalism schools will close too. And, in the meantime, crooks and liars are getting a lot more comfortable.”

Further down, Sullivan tries to explain why we’ve come to this point:

“No one thing caused it. But, newspapers have to know that they’re to blame for a lot of it. They poisoned their own ink wells. They’ve been so focused on profit for so long that the public no longer sees them as a public service, but rather as just another business.”

All this is strong enough for Kvetch of the Week honors, but it doesn’t come close to a retort by Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review that investigative journalism hasn’t been what it used to be for long time. His solution: Newsrooms must become activist once again in search of the truth, reviving the spirit of “Woodstein” and the journalism they produced:

woodstein“Allow me to suggest that the U.S. news industry’s collective failure to accurately portray the world over the past decade has done as much, if not more, to drive readers to the Internet than any inherent attractiveness of this new medium. If existing news businesses wish to have any hope of surviving the current downturn, in any medium, they cannot continue to perform as they have over the past decade.”

Niles charges that by clutching the matching security blankets of “objectivity” and “balance,” mainstream newspapers have been practicing nothing more than he said, she said acts of reporting that have glossed over the causes of a bad economy, the rise of al-Qaeda, the Bush rationale for war in Iraq, and more. Now, they’re paying for their negligence:

“No newspaper is a monopoly anymore. They all are now just voices among many others in broader information market, grown by the Web. In this new information market, news organization must stop acting like a monopoly and instead adopt and amplify a more powerful editorial voice.

“Without one, a news organization cannot stand out. It can’t inspire the public with leadership that it does not provide. Nor can it protect the public with clear direction that it refuses to offer. What’s the point of reading then? None. So angry, frustrated readers have turned to other news voices. Bored, indifferent readers have turned to other sources of engagement.

As someone inspired to get into journalism in part by Watergate — as well as the publication of the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon Administration got a brief court injunction — I don’t have much to quibble about there.

But Niles goes overboard in suggesting that an overt brand of civic activism — and he mentions liberal political bloggers Josh Marshall and Markos Moulitsas by name as examples of this — can embolden mainstream news delivery. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t purposely “get the public riled up” when they set to work each day piecing together the story that led to Nixon’s resignation. They just worked the story, stuck to bread and butter reporting, persisted and persevered, were steered by Deep Throat at times, and avoided the conscious muckraking that Niles advocates. Can the “Woodstein” way thrive on the Web? Perhaps not:

“This is the future of the news industry. Let there be no doubt. Activist news organizations, ones that engage, inspire and mobilize their readership, will be the ones that survive this downturn. Passive newsrooms will die. Prepare for this future, or prepare for your exit from this industry.”

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