‘Journalism isn’t about how you deliver the information; it’s about how you get the information’
By Lanz Christian Bañes
The media is dying.
At least, that has been what the media has been saying about itself for the past several months as legends like the Rocky Mountain News collapse and papers like the San Francisco Chronicle teeter on the edge.
Ed Bishop, a professor of journalism at Webster University in St. Louis, has watched both local and national media in this self-described march to doom. Bishop, 64, a St. Louis native, has had decades of journalism experience, from his first job in 1959 at a Chicago paper to a stint in France with the International Herald-Tribune.
After working at local publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Riverfront Times, Bishop settled into his professorship. For 10 years he was editor of the St. Louis Journalism Review, the last metropolitan journalism review in the country, until the publication left the university a few years ago.
He runs Media Watch, a multiplatform media watchdog (http://webumediawatch.com/) and hosts “Reality Now,” a radio show on a St. Louis radio station that serves as a media watchdog (http://www.kdhx.org).
Lately, he has been discussing the state of media with sources as diverse as Webster University students to national figures.
Q: Is the media dying?
A: Newspapers are in trouble, but I’m not sure that newspapers are so much dying a natural death as they are committing suicide. Most newspapers are still profitable, but the profit margins demanded by their parent company being overleveraged…or by their stockholders and Wall Street have been outrageous.
Basically, newspapers have cut back on the product in order to raise profit margins. When their product got so weak and their profit margins fell anyway, they tried to kick that up by going to the Internet, but haven’t figured it out how to make money of it. It’s a mess.
When it’s over, there will still be national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Posts, but outside of New York, most towns will have to get by with one daily newspaper and some towns will have to get by without any daily newspaper.
Good reporting is expensive, and the old model is able to pay for good reporting. We still have to wait and see if the new model of online journalism is able to pay for good reporting. At this point, the answer is ‘no’ … almost all the stuff you find online today, (the) primary reporting is done by newspapers. So far, only newspapers have been able to afford good reporting.
Q: So the danger lies in a loss of good reporting?
A: Where the danger lies if newspapers fold is that nobody will be able to pick up that kind of reporting. Good reporting shines out the information that people don’t want the public to know. That kind of public reporting might die with the daily newspaper.
Q: Jack Schafer argued in a column on Slate.com that newspapers don’t play a central role in democracy, and that what the Founding Fathers were espousing was the public forum aspect and not the investigative aspect of journalism. Your thoughts?
A: He may be right…that these other things, blogs and citizen journalism and interactive media, may have a bigger role than traditional straight journalists. But I still maintain that primary reporting is still the providence of newspapers, and for the most part, it’s still what newspapers do best.
I want to know who online, if there is no New Yorker magazine, is going to pay Seymour Hersh for the kind of investigative reporting he does.
We have here in St. Louis … StLBeacon.org. It’s a not-for-profit. They’re getting by from grant money from the Pulitzer Foundation and the Danforth Foundation, but I don’t like that stuff either. You know they are not going to go after any type of malfeasance or any rumors of corruption at Pulitzer … or with the Danforth people. They’re going to pull their punches. I realize you have the same problems with big advertisers, too, but all I’m saying is this kind of charity journalism has it drawbacks.
Q: So I take it you’re not a fan of the recent proposals in Congress to help newspapers that have become nonprofits?
A: I have no problem with newspapers becoming nonprofit organizations. What I have a problem with is when the funding for those nonprofits comes from a handful of big foundations. We’ve sort of seen what that has done to public television …. What we’ve got on public television now is pretty bland.
Q: So this is dangerous because we could end up contaminating ourselves and our reporting?
A: The danger is that reporters will self-censor in order to get the funding.
Q: What type of world would we live in without newspapers?
A: A less democratic one, or at least one where the public is less informed. We can have all the blogs and the chat rooms and interactive media you want, but (the fact) that nobody in those forums or all those blogs knows what the hell they’re talking about doesn’t do us much good.
Q: Blogs and citizen journalism aren’t always objective. Is objectivity the end all, be all of journalism?
A: No, there is no such thing as objectivity. The idea that somebody can set aside their gender, race, age, sexual orientation and pretend that they existed as a completely pure filter of information is a boneheaded idea. One reason journalism has lost so much credibility is that journalists have pretended to be objective when it was obvious to the reading public that they weren’t.
I believe in advocacy journalism, I believe in point of view journalism. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be fair, or you shouldn’t be accurate. It doesn’t mean that you’re biased in the presentation of your facts. The best way of being fair is to know yourself, and if you know you’re not objective, it’s easier for you to counterbalance what might be your innate biases.
Q: You’re an educator and a mentor, my mentor. What do you think of my generation of reporters who are coming into these uncertain times?
A: I don’t think that students are any less motivated, any less ambitious, any less inspired than they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Although your generation is much more comfortable in the new media than the past generation and older people, I don’t think you’re as enamored with the new media (compared) with some of the professors who want to change things to the new media. Schools are scurrying to catch up with what they think they should be teaching …. It’s all about the technology. They are pretty much leaving behind or forgetting for the moment that journalism isn’t about how you deliver the information; it’s about how you get the information.
Lanz Christian Bañes is a reporter for the Times-Herald in Vallejo, Calif., his Spring 2009 Chips Quinn internship newspaper. A graduate of journalism and photography from Webster University in St. Louis, Bañes was a staff writer, staff photographer, features editor and editor in chief for his school newspaper, The Journal. He also was the paper’s first editor of Asian descent, and he won a Best Investigative Piece award from the Missouri College Media Association. He was an intern with The Telegraph in Alton, Ill., and the weekly Webster-Kirkwood Times in St. Louis County, Mo. He has also freelanced for the St. Louis Business Journal.