Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

I think it's fair to call me a self-hating journalist. For two years, I hosted a radio show that made a weekly routine of satirically pointing out the shortcomings of the Modern American Mediascape, in spite of the fact that I was working professionally as a newspaper reporter for half that time. Even now, I stay very well aware of the media's shortcomings, and my own. There are plenty of both to go around, and the only way I know to fix them involves, first, being very cognizant of them.

We're still trying to figure out that second step though.

Yet in spite of everything the Modern American Mediascape lacks right now, and the endless democratic potential a mass medium like the internet presents, I can't help but be increasingly alarmed by the precipitous decline in advertising and subscription revenues being felt across the board by the traditional media and the resulting staffing cuts and business failures. I'm not just saying this because my already meager paycheck is threatened, either.

One of the criticisms myself and others have levelled since Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz started keeping a blog is that his entries have often seemed little more than press releases about city policy written in the first person. I stopped reading after a couple posts, but when we were chatting about the sweeping layoffs in the media lately at a press conference Friday, Channel 3's Jessica Arp told me to check out Mayor Cieslewicz's most recent entry.

I'll post it here, as the city is not yet archiving the mayor's blog. I do think, though, he makes some very poignant and heartfelt points about the danger this systematic dismantling of the media poses to our society.

"Criticize Me, Please

Vikki Kratz once wrote that, "(Madison) has never experienced such a surge in national popularity - and it clearly has Dave Cieslewicz to thank." That line appeared in a longer column all of which took a similar tone. I thought it was so great that I had it framed, and it sits in a place of prominence in my office. Of course, the only problem with that column was that it was a satire. She wrote it and presented it to me with much fanfare after I said that all I wanted in the new year was a single kind word in her column.

Vikki, Isthmus' city beat columnist, has left the revered weekly to be a teacher. Isthmus has said that it will fill in with stringers and staff writers, but apparently no regular city beat writer like Vikki or the incomparable Melanie Conklin before her. Meanwhile, down Fish Hatchery Road, Madison Newspapers is laying off something like a dozen staff, and we're starting to see the blurring of bylines between the State Journal and the Capital Times. And television news reporting is hurting too as ad sales decline.

None of this is a good thing for anybody. Overall, I think I'm treated pretty fairly by the press. But when I do have a complaint I can call reporters and editors with whom I have a common language. I can challenge their sources or question if a quote was in context. I can argue with them about the placement of a story or the emphasis placed in a headline. The job of professional journalists is not to treat me well but to treat me fairly. The job of the press is to challenge people in positions like mine, to ask them difficult questions when necessary and to keep after them until they get answers. It's my responsibility to keep government transparent and it's in part their job to keep after me to do mine.

So, from my point of view the press can be a pain, they can even be infuriating some times, but they're also a vital part of democracy. So, when I see the news media bleed profits and people, there's plenty of cause for concern. A big part of the problem is the web. Media outlets haven't quite figured out the business model that makes web advertising pay enough to support the same staffs they had when most people read news on actual paper.

Of course, the new world isn't all bad. It used to be that you needed a big printing press, tons of paper and barrels of ink to deliver the news. That favored a handful of people with the capital to produce newspapers or, later, to own radio and television stations. The number of people who could afford media voices was pretty limited. But now the entry bar for providing information is so low that just about anybody can do it. So there are more voices then ever. That's a good thing. But professional news gatherers and the standards they bring to their craft are getting fewer. That's a bad thing.

It could be that when all of this sorts itself out the marketplace will work. Maybe there is enough of a market for professionally gathered, professionally edited news that news outlets will thrive again. After all, a lot of us rely on reporters to provide us with accurate information, and we rely on editors to help us sift through what's important and what's just chatter. With all the clamor out there now, that could become more important then ever. Maybe. Or we could just see professional journalism continue to diminish and be drowned out by a kind of Wikipedia world where anything gets tossed out there and we all just hope that a cacophony of voices will self-correct misinformation.

In the meantime, Vikki Kratz probably made the right career choice for herself. (Dealing with third graders might in fact be easier than dealing with me and the Madison City Council.) But that's too bad. I was hoping someday I'd get this job right and that maybe she'd write that I really did deserve credit for a surge in national popularity for our city. It wasn't likely to happen, but a guy could dream. Good luck, Vikki."

I can think of few people in the city of Madison who could have bigger beefs with the media than Mayor Cieslewicz right now, and while I may criticize, I give him all the props in the world for these sentiments. While his job could conceivably be a whole lot easier if the media were to simply vanish into the vacuum, he's big enough to recognize that with it would go democracy as we know it.

And if more people shared the mayor's sentiments on this topic, "fixing" the Modern American Mediascape would be a whole lot easier. Thank you, Mayor Cieslewicz, for finally letting a bit of the man behind the tie shine through.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post shows again why you're one of the best young writers out there, Dusty.