Monday, January 18, 2010


When I was in college, I decided I was going to belong to every honorary society I could. I still have the certificates. History, sociology, journalism, etc... if I majored or minored in them, however briefly, I joined the honorary. And thus I came to join Sigma Delta Chi. I think I participated in the last year of a candlelight initiation, but I may have it confused with Gamma Ramma No. Like many of us from the 1970s, my memories of college have gaps.

In any event, I did go to a meeting at which Casey Bukro, the environmental writer for the Chicago Tribune and Society of Professional Journalists stalwart, explained why SDX was becoming SPJ. Journalists, he said, had to change from being jack-of-any-story-and-master-of-few wretches who could be bought off by the mayor's whiskey. There were two reasons, as I remember. One was that as professionals, we could demand more respect (and, presumably, more money). After all, didn't accountants, lawyers, etc. regulate their professions? The other was that we wanted to be in a position to use that new respect to tell society where it was going wrong, to point out its faults on issues such as, say, environmentalism, and be taken seriously. We couldn't very well do that if we were acting like a cross between visiting Shriners and lapdogs in heat.

It all sounded great until the inevitable point was brought up: Can we regulate who becomes a journalist in the same way that one is admitted to the bar or passes a CPA examination? There was no good answer for that, because to do so would probably impinge on the First Amendment, or require some sort of licensing that would restrict who could be published in a newspaper, which seemed kind of antidemocratic. (In that pre-Internet day, it did seem possible, though.)

We did come up eventually in the business with a sort of definition, which was: Someone whom most other professional journalists would acknowledge as a professional journalist. That led us to be able to stretch the boundaries from George Will to Charles Apple, from investigative reporters to home and design writers, editoralists to copy editors. But it could still never cope with issues such as: Was Zola a journalist when he wrote "J'accuse"? Is Sarah Palin a journalist today? I'm serious. In her first go-round as a TV sports reporter, of course she was. So why not now?

Well, you answer, because a professional journalist is distinguished by adherence to the SPJ code of ethics, maybe. Or has a detachment from open identification with partisan issues. (Rachel Maddow, anyone?) Or never crossed the line into public relations. Or follows the dictums of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Really, though, we never could define very strictly who was in the club and who wasn't. It seemed too much like trying to erect an All-Union Committee of Journalism in Moscow. What we did know, of course, is that there was a group that I would call High Church Journalists. We did have our ethics codes, and our conflict of interest resolutions, and we wanted to do what Casey Bukro had imagined: Use our professionalism, knowledge, and journalistic skills to tell society what its problems were, and hope that society would respect us enough to then fix the problem. We worked for big newspapers, the wires, top magazines, broadcasters. And all of a sudden, we were, many of us, making decent money. It must be working, right?

This all struck me back after the closure of the Ann Arbor News, when government officials in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County were asking themselves: Without the AA News, how do we get our news out? I've been a little hesitant about things since then because I realized that if you're a press critic, new media theorist, whatever, you would look at that concept -- "our news" -- and perhaps rejoice that the Ann Arbor News no longer existed.

The Pew analysis of what's happened recently in Baltimore tells a similar tale: Cutbacks in reporting at the Sun -- and in local TV, but primarily at the Sun -- have led to fewer stories that are other than rewritten press releases. One might say that in Baltimore, "our news" has made a comeback. High Church Journalism has suffered.

Back before newspapers became the range of professional journalists, they ran whatever news release came across the transom. Papers were full of "Area Man Named to Masonic Post" and "Business Group Honors Ronzone's" stories. This is how they filled their acres of space back when they had staffs in many cases smaller than today's severely cut-back models. In the 1970s, newspapers started to ghettoize this stuff, and then stop publishing it altogether. Newspapers, the thinking was, should only contain work done by (or at least thoroughly vetted by) professional journalists. After all, maybe the Area Man bribed his fellow Masons to get the post, and was a child molester to boot. Maybe the business group also honored a store that didn't buy pages of advertising in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Who knew? Unless a journalist had checked it out, don't publish it.

As, alas, the growth of myriad new media has shown us, while the public is interested in High Church Journalism, they're not as interested -- or, more to the point, as impressed -- as we thought they would be. (At least, great numbers of them. There are also many who absolutely live and breathe for it. They tend, however, to find newspapers lacking because they will do things like run photos of 5-year-olds making artworks than an exhaustive analysis of the fire department.)

And while maybe the public didn't care that much about the Masonic leadership or department store honors, people whom the newspaper did make feel important tended to buy ads. (What other reason was there for progress editions, those raise-cash sections that came out in winter talking about the amazing business of the National Panamerican Automated Tool Co.? Professional journalists stopped doing those, too, but they paid those journalists' salaries.)

Robert Picard, astoundingly on-point media analyst, decries the fact that even despite the Newspaper Holocaust, journalists seem no more interested in controlling their own fate as businesses than they did 10 years ago, when they were underwritten by classified ads. But it misses the entire point of being a High Church Journalist, which is: I should be paid to take the hard looks at society that it is unwilling to take on its own. I perform a public good. Coming up with the money isn't my problem. The fact that society tends to not agree with us has led to this current mess.

When I went to the Flint Journal, we published marriages, births and divorces. I was part of a group arguing that we should drop divorces (which we did). After all, weren't we just shaking our finger at these people and publicly shaming them? It was pointed out that this was a Public Record and gee, isn't that part of what a newspaper does? No, we said, and oh, by the way, about those births, y'know, some of them don't list a father, or the couple has different last names -- which we were in favor of, of course, using as long as you were married; but if you were not married, it was just another middle-class finger-wagging moment.

OK, but isn't this off point? Not really. We were being High Church Journalists, not only objecting to the use of news columns for information we didn't create, but also directing our news columns toward social progress (it was the era when no-fault divorce was being introduced). All this would have had a point if what we put in its place had been really interesting. We just ran more filler wire or "The township board failed for a third consecutive week to consider" stories. But we performed a public good, and if the people who looked every day for the Vital Records had one less reason to read the paper, well, good for us. We deserved better customers.

It's hard to come out against the unanticipated side effects of journalistic professionalism. Back when the Ann Arbor News was doing its last Hail Mary pass in late 2008, a competing online medium -- the Ann Arbor Chronicle -- published a critique of the News. The Chronicle's editor was a former AA News person. Back then this drew 36 comments, most decrying the ineptitude of the News in covering the "real news." When I got down to comment 27, I read:

"Although a fair amount of the comments on this thread come from former employees like myself, there are almost a dozen from readers. I think that’s very telling."

Let's say "almost a dozen" was 10. By that point, then, there had been 17 comments from former News employees. Professional journalists, let down by the fact that in cultured, educated, opinionated Ann Arbor, the News had not lived up to their expectations. I have no idea of the source of this comment:

"Today is a perfect example of why the News is increasingly irrelevant to me. When I became aware of the widespread power outages due to last night’s wind storm (via Twitter), I went to MLive to see what the News had to say – which turned out to be nothing. The “Latest News” highlighted in a red box at the top of the page was about the University’s plan to move the zoology museum’s specimen collection."

Many a professional journalist has said to me: Why do we cover the weather? Weather happens every day. When there are storms, power goes out. Why is that news?

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