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Read All About It While You Can

By Joe Wessels · October 1st, 2008 · Wessels
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No surprise, but journalism ain’t what it used to be, and we’re paying the price for it. Maybe you don’t care, don’t think you should or wonder why it even matters. Thanks to the general apathy of the American public, you’re probably right.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has said the American people are the “best entertained and the least informed people in the world,” which results in keeping our elected officials, leading corporations and other matters of public interest way off of the collective consciousness.

The “press,” as we sometimes like to be called, was the only profession mentioned in the United States Constitution. Not lawyers, doctors, preachers or teachers.

It’s a trust that the vast majority of journalists working today — the ones who still have jobs anyway — take so seriously that the word “blog” makes them quiver in their boots. It’s not elitism that causes the shaking, it’s the gravity of the calling.

It was no accident that our Founding Fathers placed this business in the First Amendment’s clause protecting the “freedom of the press” — it was a downright necessity, entirely based on the assumption that journalists and those who operated such outlets would make money doing it. The free market, in essence, would take care of keeping out government and keeping the enterprise honest.

Bad news: It doesn’t work that way anymore.

Take the cutbacks and recent buyouts at The Cincinnati Enquirer, a place I worked beginning in 1998 and off and on, based on other commitments, through 2001. When I started, the paper had more than 125 reporters working in a Tri-County bureau, a Clermont County bureau and the Northern Kentucky office along with its main operation on Elm Street downtown.

Today, that number has dwindled to around 50, with 16 more from the newsroom taking the latest buyout offer.

You probably heard about Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman’s departure, truly a great loss. But did you hear about Jim Knippenberg, Tony Lang, Margaret McGurk, Joy Kraft, Ann Haas, Ann Hicks, Allen Howard, Sara Pearce, Jennifer Schwertman, Alan Vonderhaar, Marty Eggerding, Bill Weathers and John Wolfe? Some names you’ll likely recognize, others not — but all were experienced, dedicated journalists who made The Enquirer shine in its more glorious days. And now they’re gone.

Left are a plethora of excellent journalists and editors who are very good at what they do. They’ll carry the torch, but they’ll have to carry more than they ever had to before.

Meanwhile, our local issues are more pressing, the world is larger than it’s even been before and we have fewer people to tell us about it. It’s a scary time.

It might not matter in the end. Americans — young ones especially — don’t get their news and information from newspapers as much anymore. Fewer get it off the TV. Many like the Web. Some don’t care at all.

Basically there just aren’t as many curious folks out there. It shows in the lack of coverage at news conferences I’ve attended and in the decisions about which newsworthy event gets covered and what gets a pass.

In the struggle for readers and viewers, those making editorial decisions about what to cover seem to be appealing to the lowest common denominator. Salacious, bloody, eerie, quick, short, uncomplicated and downright weird stories find their way into the top of newscasts and above-the-fold coverage as if they really mattered that much. Two words: Marcus Fiesel. Need I say more?

On Sept. 19, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists handed out its annual journalism awards. More than 100 local journalists — including many who were laid off when The Post closed in December — won something for their work in 2007.

A former Post editor eulogized the paper and how it contributed to Greater Cincinnati, talking a lot about the dedicated people who had worked there. Three veteran journalists — two living, one dead — were inducted into the Cincinnati Journalism Hall of Fame.

Through most of the event, I couldn’t help pondering how our best days are behind us and what that means not only for people like me who make a living communicating to and with you. I wonder how this community is going to survive without us.

It’s a scary thought that I never think the drafters of the Bill of Rights saw coming. Who could have?

“Press goes out of business” is one headline that would have flown off the racks.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



10.03.2008 at 12:59 Reply
You're wrong. People are still interested in the goings-on of the community, but in times like these with economic crash and burn, environmental flood and blow, corporate overlords sucking the lifeblood from the average Joe and throwing a pittance to him, if they keep him at all - then to go home to a foreclosure notice, perhaps it's harder to digest a continual stream of Depressing But Factual News. Sometimes superhero movies or Hell's Kitchen are what's really needed. Of course, you are right about a certain segment being a bit sheepy in following the pop culture tides and nothing else, but there will always be a bell curve, with many interested in the mundane and fewer others giving a darn; if truly evolved, Giving A Darn About Other People And Great Causes. People are naturally curious. The same people you criticize for being interested in The Web vs. newspapers are the ones who will read your lament. The internet has made news more alive; we have been released into a candy store that not only has the local news, but ideas from other countries, technical manuals, thoughts from intellectuals, descriptions of war-torn areas by those who live there, pictures of places we'll never go, and many other things to ponder. Journalists who've consistently lied to us to get thrown a biscuit by the Bush Administration have driven us to overseas news sites to find the truth about our own country. It is not a lack of intellectual curiosity that allows papers to die, it is a change in how the news is obtained. I don't get any newspapers for conservation's sake. Why should I kill trees and pollute streams when I can just as easily go online for a plethora of sources? By process of sheer numbers, we can sift and find the truth. I respect journalists with integrity. I trust my own instincts more. When I feel I can once again trust many journalists (not pointing a finger at anyone), then I will consider reading more of what they have to say again. I am probably not alone in this.