OFF THE BEAT: It’s not you, it’s me

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.