Of News Branding and a Journalism Mensch

Last week NPR Science Editor Anne Gudenkauf and I were chatting about journalism’s future. The occasion was the first week of NPR’s third pilot workshop/immersion into Webcentric journalism. Most of the science desk is taking time off from their regular duties for five weeks. [I wish other mainstream jurno organizations would take such an organized and committed approach. It might be difficult, but there’s no other sustainable way to move gracefully into the Medium Taking Over the World.] As associate faculty at Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley, I’m helping out with NPR’s transition into Web-world. [Here’s an AJR article about the project.] And as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I’m focusing on how to ensure the future of journalism.

To the point of this post: I told Anne it seemed as though journalism — the word, the value and understanding of its role in democracy — was lost. Two events prompted that statement. First, when I asked a group of Stanford University sophomores if journalism had ever affected their lives, they said no, although they said they did tune into news, via friends and certain Web sites. Two, the bashing of the “media elite” at the recent Republican convention — without a mention of the role of journalism in a nation where freedoms are so valued — seemed a bit contradictory.

Anne’s response: Perhaps news-organization branding is obfuscating journalism? That’s a bingo. People tar and feather — or embrace — entire organizations without separating good journalism from editorials, opinions, bad headline writing and, let’s face it, some bad journalism. Large news organizations put more emphasis on marketing their name than on the fact that they’re doing journalism. So, journalism, and what it means to our way of life, is a whisper in the wail of the sale. So a common understanding of what IS good journalism gets lost, and people can’t make informed judgments, much less demand good journalism to help them make more informed decisions in their lives.

Can’t say as I blame the news corporations. After all, they’re corporations. IBM, Apple, and Dell all sell laptop computers. But they’d prefer that you say “I have a Mac” or a “I have a Thinkpad.” So we do. And there’s the rub.

Although it’s often treated as such (there’s the story of my friend who went on a blind date, and knew there was no future when the date said, “What’s NPR?”), journalism really isn’t a commodity. It’s written into the U.S. Constitution (see the First Amendment). Which makes things a little dicey as the companies that do journalism lay off journalists or go under. More will, if you believe Vin Crosbie — “More than half of the 1,439 daily newspapers in the United States won’t exist in print, e-paper, or Web site formats by the end of next decade.” — and I do.

And this brings me to Alan Lupo, one of the real mensches of journalism who died last week at the age of 70. I met him and his equally inspiring wife, Caryl Rivers, in the early 1970s, when I was wet behind the ears, and they were well on their way to being pros. That’s Alan and Caryl, from the site of the Winthrop Library, where they gave a talk.

Here’s what Alan wrote, in a column published June 27, 2007 in the Salem (MA) News. (That’s the link to his column, but you have to pay to see the whole thing. Here it is on a site that had permission to post it….When oh when will news organizations GET the Web?)

“What sticks in my craw is that too many people now lump us journalists all together in one big pot called, ‘the media.’ Let the record show, please, that most journalists I have known for the last half-century take their mandate seriously. They may not all take themselves that seriously, else pomposity threatens, but certainly they do not fluff off their stories, columns or editorials.

“That brings me back to the papers that show up on my front porch. They have their imperfections; all newspapers do. But they remind me of what journalism is supposed to be about, namely, the coverage of democracy at its basic level — the street, the town and city halls, the school committees, the planning and zoning boards.

“The point is simple and, if simplistic, I apologize to all. But if we cannot understand how our democracy works at the local level, then what hope is there for us to comprehend our national politics or the role we play on the global stage?”

The projects I’m working on at RJI come out of this concern for making sure that journalism survives, that journalists figure out their roles in the Medium Taking Over the World, and that the members of the American community understand it, embrace it, and engage with it and journalists. More on that later. In the meantime, thanks, Alan, for your continued inspiration for these many decades. There’s a big empty place in this world without you, but a legion of journalists and, more important, members of communities, who strive to hold on to your words and ways.


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