2009: The Year Journalism could have saved itself…but didn’t. Why not?

I have been going back through some of my old files, and came across two things that struck me as relevant to 2018.

This British government report called Unleashing Aspiration, and an article called How to Save Media.

The first one had uncovered some very worrisome trends in the UK, but no less relevant in North America: that journalism was a profession that attracted middle class and wealthier people to the profession, and that those studying it were expected to have at least one unpaid internship.

It meant that the profession was rigged to keep ideological, cultural, and economic diversity out. You need someone to support you as you are working for free.

It means that stories would not be visible to those in the profession because their experiences would not be ones of struggling or discovering systemic failures.

The British government was very concerned.

Journalists in North America paid no mind to this report, and considering how social media began to take off during the era, it meant that an inherent weakness created by a rig was going to allow another media to gain dominance.

And it did.

The second article is a little different, but no less instructive.

This quote is interesting:

This is all folly and ignorance…evangelists know nothing about the business of media. True, the journalists who write about these matters for mainstream media often know as little; I didn’t understand much until I became the publisher of Technology Review as well as its editor in chief. But Shirky and Winer are disgruntled consumers and, as bloggers, advocates for an insurrection. Thus, they are to be read skeptically. Their prescriptions would be more convincing if they were less polemical and better informed by some knowledge of what publishers sell.

Someone should have given author Jason Pontin the memo that the disgruntled had every reason to be upset because journalism was always a sloppy profession, and as someone who covered the business of journalism and is “better informed by some knowledge of what publishers sell”, I can say that the profession dismissed complaints rather than see them as a sign of problems that need to be addressed.

None of Pontin’s numerous suggestions worked or could work because he flat-out dismissed the very reasons why journalism was in a free-fall: journalists could not relate or understand the problems people were facing, and then proffered theories that did not ring true to people who became alienated.

It reminds me of Communist countries during the Cold War: their newscasts would talk nothing but positive and happy news about the nation’s “prosperity”, and viewers would laugh because they were facing problems and shortages galore, and knew it was all a farce.

Many years ago, I had the chance to meet several university students who came to Canada from various regions of the former Yugoslavia, and they all referred to the news as “the propaganda” as they laughed.

And they would have been kids at the time when there were exposed to the news.

So you have kids who grew up dismissing “the propaganda.” You have journalists who come from comfortable backgrounds reporting on things with an ignorant spin, causing an increasing number of news consumers to be turned off by the journalism product.

I remember how many stories I had pitched that were turned down because it did not jive with the privileged white male editor. One could not imagine that there were dangerous gangs in Toronto. Another thought I was being hysterical about cults recruiting university students right on campus, never mind I had the ephemera to back up my claims. Other publications scoffed at the idea that street graffiti was a very reliable barometer of political discontent in urban areas.

Let alone any story I pitched about women getting abused by government systems.

To them, this wasn’t a thing. Those kinds of things did not happen in Canada, I was told. Never mind I had credible people willing to go on the record saying otherwise.

We could not upset those delicate middle class people while their were gulping and wolfing down the bland fare at Tim Hortons, and thinking they were the luckiest people in the world.

That has been the true model of journalism: sheltering the public and always having a positive spin and a happy ending.

In journalism, the editorial was inaccessible to the general public. It was speaking to fewer and fewer of them. Suggesting stories that did not “fit” with that theory of reality was difficult to say the least.

There were big clues that editorial and reportage needed more than just a radical overhaul: it needed a revolution. The problem was the amateurs didn’t have any grasp on the nuances of the job; so they couldn’t do anything better.

But the veterans had their pride and they were not going to admit their model had gone as far as it could go, and now they had to start all over again.

Unleashing Aspiration was a must-read at the time. It had the answers journalism needed to regroup. While it covered more than just journalism, it unearthed that it was the third highest profession where people from privilege work. This was not a minor finding.

This was not a factoid to dismiss.

But the very problem was also the blinders that prevented those in the profession to see it, let alone acknowledge it.

People with graduate degrees can be quite arrogant and gullible: they truly believe their degree is some sort of intellectual catch-all, and that just because they got a degree, that they know everything, and are always the smartest person in the room.

Life does not provide us with a finite number of facts. There is always something you do not know and there is always something new to learn.

Journalism was supposed to be the profession that showed up that every single day, we had new things to learn. We have new problems to face and to solve. It never actually ends.

But when those in the profession think they know-it-all, there is nowhere to go but down.

2009 came and went, and nothing changed for the better for journalism.

It just got worse.

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