My friend Samir Husni is the founder and director of The Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi's School of Journalism and New Media. He is a journalism professor, a successful publishing consultant, and very much like me, a man filled with opinions.
Samir and I first met somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s at a publishing conference held by Lane Press for their customers. The chemistry was instantaneous. I don't remember the topic, but we immediately went into our corners, took our positions, and debated.
That was not why Lane press brought us there; we were there just to give separate lectures on our take on the business of publishing. But what they got was an unexpected bonus for the attendees.
Our off-the-cuff discussions were such a hit that word got out to the trade magazines, and Samir and I hit the road publicly debating our industry's future on a national basis.
He is a dear and respected friend, and we both love taking sides just for the intellectual fun of it.
Last week at our weekly Publishers Pandemic Roundtable, we didn't have a guest speaker, so it was just the gang together to chat and share thoughts.
That is when Samir shared with the group his feelings that Journalism is dead. Well, if Bo has ever seen an opportunity to take a different opinion, this was it, and we had our usual back and forth on the topic. It went ten rounds. Alas, since we didn't have a guest speaker, we didn't record the dialog. But it was a good one and for the ages.
A few days later I suggested to Samir that I would like to pursue the topic publicly, and I asked him for a statement on the subject that I could use as a starting point to delve into the topic. Here is his statement:
"Journalism as I knew it growing up is dead or dying. It is so hard to find the good solid truthful journalism of yesteryears. There is too much information out there and too little understanding. The line between journalism and opinion has disappeared. I learned in journalism school that when a journalist gives his or her opinion, he or she is no longer a journalist...By that sentence I can easily say we are losing journalism by the second if not faster..."
I disagree with much of that, but we can't proceed without an accepted definition of what journalism is.
Merriam-Webster's definition of journalism is as follows:
1a: the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media
b: the public press
c: an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium
2a: writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine
b: writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation
c: writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest
Let me start out first that this is an opinion essay, not a work of journalism, although I'll do my best to include some facts along with my opinions.
I can agree with Merriam-Webster's definition above and add that for me, Journalism is the production and distribution of reports on current events, science, history, and other areas of public interest based on facts and supported with proof or evidence.
I would add that with today's instant information distribution systems in place globally, contrary to Samir's point I see that journalism has seen a dramatic improvement in quality over the years. Advances in technology and increased specialization have done wonders for fact-checking, data analysis, and even long-form writing.
Here is where the good professor and I agree, there is more information out there than ever before, and to Samir's point, too much of it isn't reliable or truthful. But there is also an abundance of excellent, honest, journalism by the definitions stated above.
Do we need to avoid echo chambers? Yes, of course. But that is nothing new. Historic yellow journalism comes to my mind when pining for the glory of the “good solid truthful journalism of yesteryears.
The term yellow journalism was started as a war between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, coined in the mid-1890s and was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. It used irresponsible, exaggerated, lurid, and even slanderous reporting. The wide appeal reached a million copies a day and opened the way to mass-circulation newspapers that depended on advertising revenue rather than cover price or political party subsidies. (Sound familiar?)
It was Thomas Jefferson who said:
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Much of his opinion was due to the trash printed about him in the day's newspapers that were viciously opposed to him.
Crass, opinionated, mean-spirited, foe journalism is nothing new. Likewise, some of modern style journalism is very partisan and supported by more biased revenue streams – in other words, like the journalism of 200 years ago.
But not all journalism then or today is without merit. Finding and reporting the truth remains critical to civic life and a healthy democracy. Some examples of excellent sources in my mind would include:
Vox. The Atlantic, NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, LA Times, CJR- Columbia Journalism Review, The Boston Globe., Chicago Tribune. San Francisco Chronicle. USA Today, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Time Magazine to name a few, and there are many others.
Do these publishers get it right 100% of the time? No, of course not. But the body of work over an extended period of time leaves us with excellent journalism.
And what do they report on? Climate Change and the Environment, Youth and Education, Immigration, Health Care, Money, Power, Corruption, Criminal Justice, and let us not forget, Politics. Politics can be reported on fairly and factually, however hard that might be for the reporter.
We can easily agree that some works of journalism are qualitatively better than others. Great sustained journalism is a costly enterprise. Not all can afford to focus on quality and fact-checking, but many do, as I shared above.
The issue is not that excellent journalism is not being produced; I believe that it is and on a daily basis. But it is being so overwhelmed by the quantity of inferior content, that it is sometimes unnoticed and has to be searched for. Nevertheless, once we find the sources of true journalism, it is there for us continuously, and, for those that do it well, profitably.
What are your thoughts on this subject? Is journalism dead or dying?