On the future of democracy and journalism

There’s much hand-wringing going on these days (and for a few years now) about how democracy is supposedly endangered as newspapers continue their decline. Now one of the more bombastic members of my sportswriting tribe (and it is a rather bombastic tribe) has weighed in:

“You can’t have a democracy without us. If newspapers are dying, so is our system of government.

With all due respect to Jason Whitlock, and do I respect his work a great deal, newspapers alone are not the key to democracy. They are one component of a journalism profession that is undergoing a massive transformation and redefinition that ideally will re-energize it.

With the explosion of the Web, many of us steeped longer in the print tradition are struggling to grasp the idea that it is the journalism, and not the platform, that is paramount. Whitlock is one of many sports columnists who works across many platforms rather comfortably yet he seems to fall into the same trap of regarding newspapers as the gold standard of what the profession represents.

(And there are plenty of blog posts like this arguing that blogging saved democracy because the established legacy media grew flabby, timid and complacent in recent decades.)

Yet the platform many of us will be using for our journalism from now on has the power to better inform us, more effectively hold our politicians to account and enable us to demolish cant and official statements more than print ever did. I don’t think there’s been a better time to get to the heart of the journalism that matters to us, and to the citizens we serve.

We’ve never had more freedom to dig into to those topics and issues that stoke our passions, and that called us to journalism in the first place. For those of us now out from under the umbrella of corporate media, this rediscovery ought to be endlessly appealing.

The struggle to speak and publish freely shouldn’t be taken for granted. As late as 1959, the year before I was born, the United States government was still charging journalists with sedition, and blackballing those cleared of such accusations until just two decades ago.

In many parts of the world, individuals fighting censorship, repression, poverty and the effects of war struggle mightily to get out the word. And risk jail and death to do so. American journalists who dismiss blogging, social media and other Web trends, or who aren’t comortable with them, need to understand that it really isn’t about them any longer.

There’s a tremendous opening here for “old media” journalists, with their experience, news judgment, expertise and dedication to craft, to jump fully into the fray on the Web and help bolster the democracy they say their work is all about. The time for looking back and mourning needs to be over.

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