I’ve been following with time-sucking intensity the debate on the future of journalism now playing in locales as disparate as the New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, various technology blogs and back-and-forth ripostes between individuals with skin in the game on twitter.
The bare bones of the issue is that traditional advertising-based models of media financing are collapsing. People still want high-quality news content, only they would rather just grab it online — and they’re not fussy about who serves it to them, be they the content’s owners or not.
So how to offer expensive-to-create material in a marketplace where people won’t pay for it and still make money? No-one’s yet worked out the trick. In the meantime, old media outfits are slashing jobs, leaving old-guard journalists to lament the passing of the good old days. And many successful new media sites are building their success on directing people, ultimately, to content created back in the old (and ever more fragile) system.
Who knows where we’re headed. Maybe to a world of crowd-funded content, or micro-niche journalism written by poorly-paid writers who may or may not care about facts, ethics, or the art of a good lede (not to mention reporting on days when they feel like doing something else or on subjects that happen not to interest them).
While we’re wondering, though, here’s a very old-world example to throw into the mix: the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
This rural print weekly serves an inland chunk of Mendocino County, CA. It does the job of informing area citizens of local events, news, sports results, legal notices and, as the name suggests, of shopping opportunities in local retail establishments.
It also bears the clear imprint of its editor and main reporter, Bruce Anderson, who’s owned the paper for most of the last twenty years. The paper, like Anderson, is passionate, pugnacious,and politically engaged, and, thanks to Anderson, the Advertiser is frequently a delight to read. Take his lead article in the most recent issue about cult-leader Jim Jones’ early years in Mendocino. It’s blockbuster piece of non-fiction prose — too bad he’s not chosen to put it online yet, otherwise I’d link to it. Maybe he needs us to buy his paper (as I did at City Lights in San Francisco last weekend) to keep him writing, heaven forefend.
Anderson’s own work is not exactly classic, quote-both-sides-of-the-issue reporting. But neither is it pure editorializing or unsourced blather. Anderson knows his stuff. As an editor, too, he gets the basics of the job down, but leaves plenty of room for character to shine through. Beyond showing us how enjoyable a local news weekly can be when it’s well run, though, could Anderson also exemplify what a seriously good ‘citizen journalist’ of the future might look like?
“Many newspapers are dead men walking. They’re going to be replaced by smaller, nimbler, multiple Internet-centric kinds of things such as what I’m pioneering,” news publisher James Macpherson of Pasadena tells Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. Macpherson outsources the writing of his local stories to Bangalore, where he can get writers to give him 1,000 words for $7.50.
Maybe that’s the future. But what Macpherson offers is a bastardized product. It’s serviceable, perhaps, but not better than what it’s replacing. There’s only so much reporting you can do about Pasadena on the phone or online from India. We need another solution.
Expecting your readers be your writers is no solution, either. It’s simply a gift to community blowhards, egoists, conspiracy theorists and axe-grinders. Check out online reader-generated posts and discussions of local issues — they generate so much more heat than light that they become an undue burden to read.
We need good journalism like we need a good judiciary or honest elections. We need deeply knowledgeable writers and editors covering news that matters to us (and very much to them) in clear, punchy prose. And we need them to get paid for doing it – for years and years and years.
If news keeps migrating online, there’s still the huge issue of money to resolve. But if journalists, editors and proprietors are looking for a role model of the kind of personality most likely to thrive in the brave new years ahead, maybe they’ll find it already exists in that most venerable of American print media — the writer/owner/editor of small-town local weekly news.