OFF THE BEAT: It’s not you, it’s me

mihir.cutout

It’s 10 p.m., and I’m sitting at the table of my summer home in Portland, Ore. Three empty bottles of BridgePort Kingpin Double Red Ale are on the table next to my laptop screen.

A breeze is coming in through the open screen door, and I’m reminiscing about my life and how I’ve developed over the last three years, as tends to happen when I drink.

I want to write a column, I think. I want to write a column that will tell the truth about the Daily Cal, about newspapers and about journalism. I want to tell the truth that nobody wants to say.

Now, a couple of months later I’m at the Daily Cal office, and I have done just that. Here is the truth: it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not Craigslist’s fault for taking classified advertisements away from the domain of print. It’s not the blogosphere’s fault for writing and spreading news for free.

It’s not the market’s fault for turning journalism upside down, for cutting all of The Daily Californian’s reporters’ pay, for cutting our Wednesday publication and for making us indebted to the ASUC for forgiving a portion of our rent. It’s not even the sales reps’ fault for not selling enough ads to keep newspapers afloat.

All of that stuff is on us, the journalists. It’s our fault. Our job was to report the news, and we did that. But we got complacent, and we stopped evolving, and soon the concept of a news article became far removed from what you, as a person, valued. Now we find ourselves in an awkward position where an indispensable component of democracy is slipping away, and we’re scrambling.

Here’s my background: I came to Cal in fall of 2008, and I got straight A’s the first semester I was here. Then I joined the Daily Cal. Needless to say, my grades were never the same. But that’s when I began what I call my “real education.”

I reported for a couple semesters at the Daily Cal, then I was an editor for a couple more. I drove down to Los Angeles for a weekend just to attend a workshop on watchdog journalism. I read blogs — PBS MediaShift, Journalistics, Nieman Reports — about the media industry daily. I currently get a Monday through Friday print subscription to The New York Times. I’m in love with the Berkeley-based investigative nonprofit California Watch. I taught (and still teach) a DeCal about in-depth reporting, featuring speakers who have written for The New York Times magazine, The Los Angeles Times, the Center for Investigative Reporting and others. Last semester I interned for the San Francisco Chronicle, and this summer I worked full time for one of the best papers in the country: The Oregonian.

The summary? For the last three years, I’ve breathed journalism. I know it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life — surely an unhealthy thought. But as my interest has grown, and I’ve seen more intricacies and nuances of the industry, so has my disillusionment.

It’s clear to me that a number of people are out of touch with the core of journalism. Journalism isn’t a business, and a news article isn’t a product. Sure, advertising is a business, and it has been so intertwined with newspapers over the last century that it’s hard to think of journalism without advertising. But journalism isn’t advertising.

Journalism also isn’t about putting out a newspaper every day or every week or every second, if that were possible. That’s just a means to an end.

What is that end? Transparency and accountability: the free-flow of information required to keep democracy alive. Journalism is about informing people so individuals can make active, smart decisions about the world they live in and improve society as a whole.

Journalism’s sustenance depends solely on society’s trust that it can and does accomplish that end. Smart people around the country can develop all the business models they want, but it’s all for naught if the reporting fails.

That’s what I think we’ve lost: sight of our responsibility and the bigger picture. I’ve seen the Daily Cal struggle firsthand to make sure there are enough words to fill the next day’s paper with some content — any content — and have had to do that myself. Editors are often so stressed about putting out a daily product that it’s hard to think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.

On a national level, papers have given in to market fluctuations, and some are increasingly emphasizing “hits” on their websites, so that an article about puppies or celebrities or the neighborhood fair gets more play than a multi-part report on seismic safety in California’s schools. Papers have closed investigative or watchdog reporting teams — arguably the most important part of journalism — to save money.

Journalism is in a dark time. But we can’t give up. We have to fight for relevance in your lives. We need to gain back your trust that what we’re doing is worth keeping alive, one way or another, and we can’t do that by writing fluff.

It’s not enough to just write an important article anymore. It’s not enough to send out 10,000 copies of the Daily Cal to racks around campus and the city. We, as journalists, need to be in your face all the time.

Firstly, newspapers need to be transparent. You need to be able to trust what they’re doing. You need to know as much as possible about how they get their money, where it goes and why, for example, the Daily Cal’s news racks aren’t restocked on Wednesdays. You need to know who the editors are, where they come from and what they value.

Secondly, journalists need to be out in the community. We need to hold public meetings where you can come and talk to us about what we do and tell us what you like and what you don’t so that we can be better. We need to better serve you.

Finally, we need to help you take action. An article means nothing if it doesn’t help you make some sort of decision in your life, so every article needs to be coupled with instructions on how you, as a resident of a democratic country, can make your life, your family’s life and your society’s life better, given the information you’ve just received.

I don’t have all the answers. I just have too much angst and now finally a public outlet for it in the form of this column. What I can tell you now is it isn’t anyone’s fault but our own that we find ourselves in journalism’s epic predicament.

And what I can promise you now is I will try as hard as I can to make journalism important in your life again.

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  • AMahirFanNow

    Bravo, Mihir. Bold, strong and to the point. A difficult self examination thatshould be read and debated by every media staff in the country. Kep it up – keep writing and kep thinking hard on hard topics.

  • thank you

    fight the good fight :)

  • http://twitter.com/peard33 Paresh Dave

    And how does this journalism pay for itself?

    • Sim

      boners

  • Mwalshi 666

    Mihir…which commenter are you?  What name are you disguised as in this thread, which also has some very intelligent insight?

  • Reilleyfam

    ” Journalism is about informing people so individuals can make active, smart decisions about the world they live in and improve society as a whole.”

    Amen!
    Class of 1989 – English Literature.

  • RightON

    BRAVO – Fantastic!  I do not want to sound melodramatic – but God Bless Journalist if not for their/your brave, we would all be ‘slaves’

  • tesla

    you them, jerry maguire. 

  • Norskar

    Dude, 

    Go into TV. It has a future. Unlike print. 
    Plus, you’ll go far as a writer/producer (or reporter) because it’s obvious you have some sense, so you’ll outshine all the puppet heads at any station or network in the country. 

    Best of luck.  

  • holden

    what’s a journalist?  i get my news from social media. 

  • http://flavors.me/andrewvazzano Andrew Vazzano

    What’s wrong with journalism, as a column in which you only write about how you feel?

    I’m confused.

    • Anonymous

      That’s one of his many points.  This is his opinion.  That’s why it’s in a blog/op-ed column, not in something purporting to be a news article.  He’s not saying that there’s no place for opinions in print (maybe that’s what you’re saying; it’s hard to tell when the snark misses the mark), but one of his points is that opinion and infotainment are masquerading as real journalism far too often these days.

    • Reilleyfam

      Called an “editorial”

  • Guest

    The reason nobody cares about “journalism” anymore is because there aren’t any journalists. Nearly every self-described “journalist” now, except the ones that do the inane stuff no one cares about–pop culture columns, etc., is quite obviously a polemicist.  If I can’t trust you to refrain from filtering the facts through your personal politics, why should I take you or your publication seriously?

    • Youarenotfoolinganyone

      All you are saying is that you prefer the status quo, because the only time you pay attention and deem anyone a polemicist is when what they say punctures your own carefully crafted bubble of deliberate ignorance, disrupting your own blind-spot riddled philosophy. You only want the facts that justify and reinforce the way things are now, so you can tell yourself that you don’t have to change.

      • Reilleyfam

        No need to be so insulting ans snarky about a very valid point. MOST “journalists” nowadays only work to push their bias on the rest of us. Objective fact-based journalism is dying and he makes a valid point. You dont have to agree but you could be civilized about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Hamer/1654932749 John Hamer

    Mihir, this is a very savvy and insightful column. You’re spot on with your analysis and proposed solutions. Transparency and accountability are too often missing in journalism these days, and so is true openness to citizen interaction. That’s why we started the TAO of Journalism project, asking all journalists to be Transparent about who they are, Accountable if they make mistakes, and Open to other points of view. It’s pretty simple and could help rebuild public trust and media credibility. We’re urging anyone practicing journalism to take the TAO pledge and display the seal on their websites or in print. Many have, all around the world, and it’s especially popular among student journalists. The Daily Cal should sign up! See http://taoofjournalism.org for details. It’s free to student publications. BTW, I’m a Stanford J-school grad and my first job was at The Oregon Journal (later merged into The Oregonian). I now run the Washington News Council (http://wanewscouncil.org), whose mission is to promote accurate and ethical media.

  • Guest

    From the perspective of an old journalism fart:

    You’ve nailed it.

    I must take issue with earlier commenters – “citizen participation” is to journalism as first aid is to surgery. Any fool (“reporters” included) can repeat what he/she’s seen or been told, while the Lazy Balance Imperative leads to such witlessness as “starvation may not be all bad.” “Innovation” in news delivery, meanwhile, has become a synonym for “dumb it down and make it pretty – and do it cheap.”

    Telling people what could affect their lives, and how they can respond, is very different from telling them how their lives should be affected. Good journalism should lay out the issue, explain how it affects the reader, and give the reader access to means to act on the information one way or another, if the reader chooses to do so. That’s far from advocacy.

    • Guest

      “That’s far from advocacy”
      Yes, but giving access is a far cry from giving instructions.

  • Jeffgoertzen

    Mihir, your talk of “journalism” being in dark times couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps newspapers are in dark times, but journalism is prospering as never before. It has just taken on a different face, different platforms…ipad, smart phones, twitter, etc. And what has become so rich about journalism is that citizens can participate in it. Look at the incredible images and reporting that has taken place with the tsunamis and earthquakes. I’ve been in journalism for 30-plus years and have worked side by side with some of the most influential people in newspapers, such as Mario Garcia and Roger Black. These are people who are on the cutting edge of changing the way we present our news to our readers. You should get to know these people. They are influencing the way we report and package our news. Reporters and editors alike are changing the way they report the news to keep it fresh for online and more in depth and progressive for the next day. Not sure what they’re doing at the Daily Californian, but here at The Denver Post, we’re constantly pushing for innovation not only in our content, but also how we get the news to our readers. And our online traffic and comments reflect that.

    • Guest

      “changing the way we present our news to our readers”
      It’s certainly changing, but is it professional?  What assurance is there that volunteer journalists are objective, ethical, informed, and competent?  I’m pretty sure a lot of them aren’t.

    • Reilleyfam

      Those are not professional or reliable journalistic outlets/sources. THAT is the point; that the only “journalism” we have now is self promoters with a bias like Glenn Beck/Rush or social media which is basically an opinion/rumor mill. Real journalism is objective, fact based and verifiable – your outlets, other than pictures taken, are trash. Sorry.

  • Frank Stone

    Good luck with your quest. I’m a retired copy editor and I’ve often considered newspapers to be guardians of the written word. They don’t just provide information; they do it with precise language. They must translate the bafflegab of politicians and businessmen who only have their own agendas so that the readers can understand what they are saying.  Sound bites aren’t enough.  The business people of the media also have to do their part to find new revenue. It’s not enough to keep cutting back because eventually you have no product to sell.
    As I said, Good Luck.

  • http://www.johnsutton.us John

    You’ve offered some good food for thought. Just be careful not to heed the siren call and fall too far into that bottle of BridgePort Kingpin Double Red Ale. Otherwise you might have a more serious problem to deal with than professional relevance.

    • Youarenotfoolinganyone

      Shut up, concern troll.

  • http://twitter.com/mcloughlinpromo Dan Verhaeghe

    I believe in transparency as much as you. But at the end of the day, it was painful to read your article- where’s the interactive content I’m looking for?  Most people are just simply visual learners now. The article has to have goodies like The Oregonian (like you said, one of the best newspapers in the country) has implemented with Digimarc Discover. Pick up a copy, download the app, and be further entertained. 

    • Anonymous

      Are you saying it is painful for you to read straight text without interactive elements? 

      If so, maybe you should try video games, this “text” stuff might not be for you.

    • Collins

      You know I’m sick of, “But at the end of the day…” phrase constantly being said. Come up with another saying. Mihir, good job.

    • HButterfield

      If The Oregonian is one of the best newspapers in the country, then journalism is in worse shape than I thought. I live in Portland, but I subscribe to the New York Times. The lack of sophisticated reporting in The O is embarrassing. The reporters don’t ask enough questions. And the assumptions they bring to their reporting are like something out of the 70s. It can’t be because of their age, since many of them are recent graduates, hired at lower salaries to replace the “old timers” who were forced out. (Here’s a subject the media shy away from: age discrimination.)

      Portland is supposed to be a city of writers. You would never guess that by reading The O with its dull, predictable writing. I cannot remember the last time I saw something on The O’s Web site that surprised me. (I won’t pay for the print edition anymore.) The op-ed section, in particular, is devoid of any spirited debate.

  • Anonymous

    Good luck paying for all that.

  • guest

    this had to be said by someone, thank you for stepping up and holding yourself accountable for the crisis in journalism. i agree, but i’m not sure exactly what to do about it. sex, scandals and cute kittens always win. i hope you can think of a solution to save it before it’s too late. journalism is an integral part of society!

  • Guest

    ” instructions on how you, as a resident of a democratic country, can
    make your life, your family’s life and your society’s life better”
    This isn’t journalism; this is advocacy.  Note that measures to make one family’s life better might make another’s worse.  Are journalists supposed to be the arbiters who decide where the benefits accrue?

    • Youarenotfoolinganyone

      Oh look, another one. I refer to the reply I gave some moments ago:

      All you are saying is that you prefer the status quo, because the only time you pay attention and deem anyone a polemicist is when what they say punctures your own carefully crafted bubble of deliberate ignorance, disrupting your own blind-spot riddled philosophy. You only want the facts that justify and reinforce the way things are now, so you can tell yourself that you don’t have to change

      • Reilleyfam

        The same could be said of you. Anytime anyone disagrees with you you accuse them of being blind or wanting the staus quo. Just because someone disagrees with you does not make them wrong or you correct. Many of us want FACTS not opinions from either side – we’re real Americans who make up our own minds. We cant do that without unbiased and objective facts. Journalists should not be advocating anything – they should be reporting facts and allowing readers to decide what is what.

  • Brian

    epic tag win