Sunday, August 23, 2009

Are newspapers watchdogs? Wyman looks nationally, AYR locally

Veteran alt-journalist Bill Wyman, in a piece in the web magazine Splice Today (headed by New York Press founder Russ Smith) headlined Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing, takes aim at claims of civic virtue.

He writes:
The commentators most caught up in the romanticized notion of newspaper cite the potential loss of the newspapers’ “watchdog” function. Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs, and most of the rest don’t spend an inordinate amount of time being watchdogs. Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn’t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers. (Though they definitely have their moments.)

The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers.

Did some critics write negative reviews? Of course. Did some local papers do occasional good work, embarrass a public official now and again, tell its readers things they didn’t want to hear? Yes. Did they also provide some useful health news, give some ink to deserving local art or cultural endeavors? Yes to that as well.

Now, the national daily newspaper industry is so broad in the U.S. that, with selective citing, you can make just about any case for or against it. But me, I’ve lived in five major American cities and, as I said, often either written on the media or oversaw my organization’s media coverage, so I feel that I can claim some confidence in my impressions.

So, sure, an average newspaper did print some serious journalism. But is that most of what they did, or even anything more than a tiny part? Did newspapers crusade from early in the morning to late at night to right wrongs? Did the typical reporter spend the majority of her or her time ferreting out information that the local powers-that-be kept hidden? Did their critics focus a gimlet eye on all manner or art and pop culture, shoot from the hip, provoke dialogs about its meaning and import? Did the papers really afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? Did each department, each day, have at least one story that took an extra step to find out some information that others didn’t want public, that didn’t come from a press release or a government official, that didn’t merely repeat warmed-over developments that had happened the day before?

No on all counts.


And in Brooklyn?

Did the other two dailies cover the recent dust-up in the race for the 35th District Council seat, in which challenger Delia Hunley-Adossa (via the Courier-Life's notorious Stephen Witt) called the New York Times blog The Local biased?

Did they try to figure out whether the charges were legit?

Nope.

What about the blogs?

Did any of the blogs in Clinton Hill (and adjacent Fort Greene), the alleged "bloggiest" neighborhood, cover it? Clinton Hill Blog? The Real Fort Greene? (The latter has publicly ceded its role to The Local.)

What about the comprehensive-in-aspiration Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn or Brooklyn the Borough

What about Brownstoner, which, Steven Berlin Johnson predicted, in five years would be one of the "big bloggers [that] will break stories [about civic controversies like Atlantic Yards], comment on events, and even make money."

Nope.

(The only journalist/blogger besides me to pick up the story was journalist Aaron Short, who also covers politics and news for the Courier-Life and other news outlets.)

Yes, journalists and others using blogs can serve as watchdogs. But it isn't happening enough.

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