Here’s a story I did in August 2009, “Atlanta’s Combat Zone,”. I wanted to offer it to readers because the press should offer a review of history, a chance to look back and measure progress or decline. We journalists are supposed to be the chroniclers of our eras. That’s why it’s so important that reporters, columnists and editors have a history with the areas they cover. If journalism is the rough draft of history—and it is—how can one possibly hope to make that draft as accurate as possible if one has no clue about what has come before? It’s that background that gives media the power to influence change. It would be impossible for us to say “Look at this—years of neglect and grinding poverty and filth, despite millions in public investment” unless we knew that were indeed the case. When newspapers began behaving like every other business, parachuting in anyone with a keyboard in a lame attempt to provide coverage without knowledge, they lost credibility and market share. The same is true for TV news. How often have we seen some poor newbie reporter standing on the scene in Virginia Highland and saying “Reporting live from Midtown”? They literally don’t know where they are. Why would any of us trust these people to tell us what’s going on?
Unfortunately, some of this can be blamed on the panic induced among newspapers and TV networks by the growth of the Internet. Oh, I know it’s the greatest development since the printing press, but that’s the point, it’s just the medium; for those of us in the business of sharing information, it’s only the latest in a series of developments that have helped us get information out faster and, I believe, better. But consultants, as we all know, make their money based on the idea that you are ignorant and need their “superior” knowledge, so for some of them (certainly not all) the name of the game in media has been to convince publishers, reporters and editors that the emergence of the Internet is not comparable to Gutenberg’s printing press but is instead a revolution that destroyed all that came before. That has distracted journalists from the plain truth that what we do has never changed: We listen, we watch, we gather information and we offer it up to the public in the most palatable or intriguing fashion we can find. Deeply embedded in that process is our duty—I believe it is a sacred one—to keep an eye on our government and make sure that it remains true to the mission of our Founding Fathers.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” was a powerful promoter of the American Revolution simply because he told people to think about how their government—the English king and Parliament—represented them. He took the government to task for being ill-informed, out of touch or just disinterested. We still do that today. Paine could read “Atlanta’s Combat Zone” and recognize values that he outlined. His pamphlet turned out to be a huge commercial success, one of the hottest selling items of his time. His ideas were not new. Philosophers all over the world were talking about government and its relationship to the common folk, but Paine put their high-fallutin’ ideas into plain language and his passion for the topic gave his little pamphlet a sense of urgency. He knew what was going on, he was plugged into the revolutionary spirit sweeping the colonies, and he knew that the people needed a big voice to express their own stake in the matter.
That remains the mission of the press to this day.
How we do it—in print or online—is merely a technical matter in the much more important discussion of what we do. We chronicle history as it happens so that people will know how their government is doing, whether, as Paine insisted, they are being represented. That has never changed. I am a blogger journalist. I’ve been blogging for a few years now, previously when the Ramage Report was at the Sunday Paper and now, for the past six weeks, here on this website. I’ve worked as a professional journalist for almost 20 years. But what I do now and what I did when I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism in 1992 hasn’t changed. What matters is that we do stories like “Atlanta’s Combat Zone” so that the public has a benchmark to determine how their money is being spent, how they are being represented by their elected officials, and whether progress is being made.
Our audience hasn’t changed either. Readers read. If you’re not writing for readers, if you’re not promoting your publication for its great stories or kickass columns, who’s going to read you? Readers love a fascinating story. Civically engaged people love having a champion looking out for their interests.
That’s our audience: readers and involved citizens.
Kids in their 20s are no different today than we were in 1992. They just have better toys. We didn’t read newspapers, either—except for journalism students like me who had to. When I read the reminiscences of people who claim they eagerly awaited the arrival of the newspaper at age 14, I tend to think they must have been dorks. I was a huge dork and even I didn’t do that. When I was that age our “Internet” was the phone and we spent hours on it with our friends much to the anger and disgust of our parents. Newspapers and networks’ insistence on trying to appeal to a group of people who simply are not mature enough to want what you’ve got is silly. (That’s why the alternative press, which tends to focus on younger readers, has always accounted for only a relative sliver of the media market.) Those kids will one day be newspaper readers even though they will read them exclusively online (and I for one think that’s a good thing in the long term). They will grow into being news consumers, but not if the newspapers, or online news sources like this one, die because we failed to hold onto the people who do read us. Our older population is booming. Eventually everyone gets old—unless they get unlucky or sick first. News media should be celebrating their growing audience instead of alienating it by focusing on the one thing its members can never recapture: their youth. SR