It engenders anger to know the president of the United States says that what I did for a living for 20 years — and what I’ve spent 25 years teaching — represents the acts of “an enemy of the American People.”
President Donald, titularly “the most powerful man in the world,” will eventually learn not to pick fights with people who buy ink in 55-gallon drums — and have plenty of digital and video ink to spare.
He’s awakened a slumbering watchdog. Recall journalism’s reactions to President Nixon’s overt and covert deceits. The nation’s best newspapers rose to challenge the president — and Nixon lost. Trust in the executive branch withered. Remember, too, the swell of entrants to the nation’s journalism programs (well, after “All the President’s Men” hit the big screen). Will that happen again in President Donald’s first term?
President Donald’s fortunate in the timing of his presidency. The last 20 years have left journalism in a weakened, altered state. Reasons are many — management reacting too late to the challenge of the internet, a decline in interest in the field among the young, and massive losses of revenue prompting executives to pare the workforce of daily print journalists by 20,000 positions, about 39 percent.
Further, journalism (at least consistent, probing, serious journalism over time) has become a coastal activity. It’s notable that the areas mostly likely to suffer catastrophic flooding from climate disruption — the coasts — is where journalism is a dominant professional activity. The “new” media outlets thrive (or try to) in New York City and Washington, D.C. Joshua Benton, writing for Nieman Lab, explains:
Think of the most prominent digital-native news companies, like Vice Media, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Gawker Media, Mashable, Vox Media — all of them are in New York or D.C. (Vice adds a sort of geographic diversity by being in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan, I suppose. But you could still visit a dozen of them without your Uber bill climbing too high.) There are smaller hubs in the Bay Area (for tech reporting), Los Angeles (all about video), and even Miami (for Spanish-language and Hispanic-targeting media), but the increase in concentration is unmistakable. Journalism jobs are leaving the middle of the country and heading for the coasts.
The students I teach who wish to be journalists find the jobs available concentrated on the coasts. Benton again:
Let’s start by thinking of the pre-web news business. Physical distribution of newspapers and over-the-air distribution of TV signals meant location was all-important for daily news. Journalistic talent was arrayed to match, with substantial newsrooms in every city.
Digital changed that. I took a look recently at the job openings posted on JournalismJobs.com to see how many of them were based in New York City or Washington, D.C. Among television jobs, only 8.8 percent were based in one of the two news capitals. (The states with the most jobs? Texas, Ohio, and Florida.) For newspaper jobs, that number was 10.5 percent. But among digital media and startup jobs, nearly 4 in 10 — 38.9 percent — were located in New York, D.C., or their suburbs.
When The Washington Post looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics data last year, it found that the share of American reporting jobs that were in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles went from 1 in 8 in 2004 to 1 in 5 in 2014.
From 100 miles west of the Atlantic coast to 100 miles east of the Pacific coast, journalism has foundered. Newspaper managements have cut the journalistic workforce to dysfunctional levels. Small community papers, regional papers, even some of the metro dailies have had to make difficult decisions on what to cover and how. Newspapers have shut down.
If you live in the rural or suburban interior of the United States, what has become of your local newspaper? According to the Pew Research Center, the number of daily U.S. newspapers has declined from 1,457 in 2004 to 1,331 in 2014. That’s 126 communities that have lost a valuable source of information.
Non-coastal journalism today has difficulties covering school board meetings, let alone worry about the acts of President Donald.
Think of the actions of government closest to residents of a community. Taxation. Law enforcement. Budgeting for schools and government costs. Protection (or not) of the community’s natural resources. Economic development.
Because far fewer journalists work at their craft for the benefits of their communities, government actions often go uncovered and unexplained. Your property tax bill just appears. The governmental process of setting your community’s tax rate is … well, unaccounted for.
That’s the work of journalists. Hold governments — especially local governments — accountable for what they do. But there’s another reason for keeping close tabs on local, regional, and state governments — they are the training wheels for national politics.
Both the national Democratic and Republican party organizations fuel efforts to select and train candidates at the local and state levels to build, I suppose, the next generation of national party candidates and politicians incapable of effectively governing. But increasingly such local and state activity goes uninspected because too few journalists have time to closely track it.
When President Donald, or anyone, next declares journalists “the enemy of the American People,” look at the costs of your local schools, the effectiveness of your children’s education, the condition of your town’s roads and bridges, the cost of local government, the efficiency and effectiveness of police and fire departments, the bidding process for winter road salt and other town supplies, the economic growth (or decline) of downtown, the availability of health care and family practice physicians … it’s a long list. The officials who now quietly decide those local government functions behind closed doors may someday be sitting in Congress, used to not being closely covered by journalists.
If you think you ought to know more about these local and state officials and what they do, ask who the enemies really are. You’ll find they aren’t the reporters and editors at your local newspaper.