American Culture

Punk saved music. Can it save journalism?

Frank Balsinger aka Fr. AnathemaDr. Denny at Scholars and Rogues, a reputable voice for authentic journalism, occasionally shares insights into the industry that the Fourth Estate has become. As a non-authentic journalist/authentic non-journalist (circle one), I read his articles and am struck with a near-Gothic melancholy. The news on the state of the art reads like an elegy for a dying bride. I can almost hear the plaintive rain pattering on the windowpanes, see the water running down the glass in waves against a backdrop of weeping willows. What I do hear, figuratively, are bells, tolling. But for whom are they tolling?

At first glance, it’s easy to see that the bells are tolling for the news industry as many of us grew up with it. Some of us can actually remember going to quaint little metal boxes and stuffing nickels in one slot, dimes in another, to extract, on the honor system, one copy of the newspaper. If we were really lucky, we had to choose between two boxes or fork out twice the nickels and dimes. I was young enough at that time that my decision was made by which paper had the better comic strips. Sunday was like bonus day. For a few cents more you bought a slab of newsprint just filled with goodies you’d been waiting eagerly for all week. At least there was a choice, a box, a small token of support, some honor, and something to look forward to each week. Now we get click, flashing lights, click, flashing lights, click, flashing lights or, in Harry Potter-speak for smart phones, the swish and flick, tiny flashing lights, swish and flick, tiny flashing lights…

All this, 24/7, and no actual conversation. No flesh and blood friends need apply. Just share via the wonders of ubiquitous social networking. There’s still metal boxes here and there. There’s even newsstands, if you can find one. The bells are still ringing.

At second glance, it’s also plain to see that the bell tolls for reporters. It didn’t matter whether we actually bought the paper and read it (though that would have been nice, too). Someone we knew did. That person started conversations with, “hey did you read this in the paper?” The this in question was the product of shoe-leather reporting. Some unsung hero with nicotine-stained fingers and not enough coffee in his Bailey’s pounded pavement in the romantic pursuit of The Story. Our hero, part Peter Falk and part Ed Asner, brushed up against the seedy underbelly of their town, sometimes an underbelly that wore badges, at that. Some few got the society beat, but in our little romance version the real journos rolled up their sleeves, got their hands dirty, lost sleep, danced with danger, and got slammed in the head with an insight that tied together all the loose ends to put together a story, sometimes to even help put the bad guy behind bars.

Those bells seem to have stopped long ago. The pallbearers might not even remember who they carried, there were so many casualties. The newsrooms now? Swish faster! Flick harder! Forget the readership and our central role in democracy. We have the all mighty shareholder to appease!

There’s another creepy echo of bells tolling, however. Dr. Denny points them out, but I don’t think we hear them quite so clearly as we should. We’re being starved for actual news coverage. Our decision-making capacity is atrophying for want of substance. We buy the products we’re told to from an artificially stripped down menu of Product A from Wealthy Advertiser and Product B from Wealthy Advertiser, while guzzling back shots of BPA and slamming back fast food even the flies refuse. Our itchy voting fingers are posed over glowing touch-screens, informed only by SuperPACs and Facebook shares. The vote count probably won’t (and can’t) be audited, but that’s okay. We don’t know that because that sort of news is too boring to tweet, but hey, look at this cat acting feline!

Yup, clearly that third bell tolls for we.

But it’s still tolling. We’re not dead yet, however close it may seem. There’s still time to jam the bells, to rip the system. It’s time to put out the clarion call to the same forces that saved pop culture back in the 70’s, that gave the 80’s something better to do than wear parachute pants in assorted Day-Glo colors and listen to Madonna before it was cool again, that gave the 90’s its edge and carried us through the Oughts to the present day, when the screamiest of talent might not even be aware that its roots go back to ’67 and before.

Calling all punks! Calling all punks!

Remember what you did when the big music labels nearly killed music and it was all but impossible to get the word out about the latest obscure band only 25 people even knew existed? You went indie before there was indie. You were alternative before it was a brand. You recorded on cassette decks using equipment bought at your favorite pawn shop before there were desktop studios. You played all-ages gigs at crusty little VFW halls before there was YouTube. You drew your own flyers on the backs of scrap paper and photocopied them before there were affordable color laser printers and GIMP. You passed them out wherever the freaks were known to come out and play instead of having a MySpace page. You got your clothes from thrift stores and did creative things to them before Hot Topic discovered it could do that for you. You had friendship books before you had Facebook. And you had ‘zines, true to life goddamn top-left stapled, typed, handwritten, mechanical’ed ‘zines, before there were websites. You had Maximum Fucking Rock & Roll. And look at the legacy you left us. Not only did you not do it for the money. You did it in spite of the money.

We need you again. We need you pounding pavement. Asking the hard questions. Writing the stories with edge that bear the scars and blood and tears to get them, that have the nourishment for our brainmeats that we don’t get anywhere else. We need you printing them, top-left stapling them, and distributing them wherever free thought hasn’t quite died yet. We need you to re-invent an industry hell-bent on imploding and taking us all with it. We need you to do it now. And we need it to change the face of the 20-teens, give us something new for the 2020’s, put the edge in the 2030’s, carry us through the 2040’s, and be so old hat by the 2050’s that the new news-screamers forget they had roots back in ’67 and before.

Can ya’ do that for us? Fuckin’ nobody else will. That by itself should piss you off enough to do it.

Image credit: The author.

2 replies »

  1. Is blogging the parallel, punk journalism? raw, unprocessed, organic?

    conceptually perhaps, but in practice not, because people are willing to blog opinions but not gather news and do the hard work of journalism.

  2. I think blogging might be more like parallel op-ed, occasionally even delving into in-depth analysis. But I think we’re still a long way from a general form of blog-journalism. Like you said, a lot of folks just aren’t willing to do the hard work. What’s worse, imho, is that even were blog-journalism to catch on and people were to do the hard work, it’s still the blogosphere where tunnel vision and echo chambers seem to rule supreme.