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Dwindling watchdogs

Jan 4, 2016

Well, Happy New Year. I like to catch up on movies during the holidays, and the first one I saw this season was Spotlight, the film about how The Boston Globe exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex scandal 14 years ago.

Dozens of journalists I know raved about the movie, and they weren’t exaggerating. Spotlight is clearly the most important film about journalism since All The President’s Men 40 years ago. Like that film, it is largely a documentary with Hollywood stars reenacting the roles played by actual, less photogenic journalists.

Reporters who bring us bad news are never popular; they are always under tremendous pressure not to do their jobs. The most they’ve usually been able to expect by way of reward is to know they did something for society, and the truth.

But the world of journalism has dramatically changed. The very tool that makes it so much easier to find information – the World Wide Web – has destroyed the economic underpinning of journalism. The short version is that classified advertising, that mainstay of newspaper economics, has largely fled to the Internet, where it is mostly free.

Advertisers don’t want to pay, or pay much, to advertise in an online publication. Besides, young people regard reading a newspaper much as they’d regard cooking on a wood stove. They want to read, if they want to read, on their phones or iPads.

That may be adequate for celebrity or sports news. But it is hard to make sense of anything real that way. And journalism jobs are disappearing anyway.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wanted to set up an ideal republic where virtue was protected by a class of guardians. The classic question, of course, was who would watch over society’s guardians.

For more than 200 years, our answer has been the press.

We journalists haven’t always done our jobs perfectly, but we’ve done them, often for low pay and high stress. But the ability to do them is vanishing. When The Boston Globe did the Spotlight movie stories, it had recently been bought by The New York Times for more than $1 billion.

The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of that scandal, and six more since then. But two years ago, the Times sold it to a local businessman for a mere $70 million. Newspapers may be in even worse shape in Michigan.

The Detroit papers were filled with goodbye stories recently from a large number of experienced reporters, editors and columnists who took buyouts to leave. Some were ready to retire. But many took the money and ran because they feared they might soon be laid off without any cushion. This is a somewhat invisible tragedy. If a tree falls in the forest, or the city council steals the pension funds, how will we know if the media aren’t there?

We won’t, till it’s too late.

What do we do about this? Some have suggested government subsidize the press as sort of society’s ombudsman, but that’s not politically realistic. There are fools who think right and left wingers ranting on the airwaves is a substitute for journalism, but it’s not.

As far as I know, nobody really has any answers. But I do know we need to find some, relatively soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.