The importance of quality journalism

Posted on April 20, 2010

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The following (shown as a quotation) is the full text of a lengthy comment I submitted to the blog, Occam’s Razr in response to Ike’s post about whether Birmingham is ready for an online newspaper.

As [John] Archibald points out, a properly-functioning democracy depends on voters who are informed about issues (and, I would add, sufficiently educated and thoughtful to properly evaluate information and issues). Quality news journalism is at the foundation of an informed citizenry.

Quality news journalism encompasses investigative reporting—that takes time, money and other resources. A key question when evaluating the future of traditional journalism (regardless of delivery platform) is how much profit is “enough” for the owner or investor.

The acceptable profit margins might be lower (and achievable) if the owner is an individual, or a small group of individuals, committed to quality journalism. At the present time, I don’t believe a news enterprise committed to investigative reporting and quality journalism can produce profit margins that will satisfy Wall Street, hedge funds or institutional investors. Case-in-point: I’ve read more than one account of the decline of quality standards at The Wall Street Journal in the past year since it was acquired by you-know-who.

Based on the evidence in the marketplace, investors and owners are increasingly giving up on the notion that quality journalism can lead to increased revenues. The focus is on cutting costs, rather than using quality content to increase circulation (eyeballs). The content continues to shift to fluff, celebrity news, shock opinion and regurgitation of wire content available from multiple sources.
I think an online newspaper that delivers quality content on matters of public importance could survive under the right conditions:

  • Owners committed to journalistic excellence
  • Owners committed to profitability but who don’t necessarily aspire to achieve the Richard Scrushy lifestyle and who don’t have Larry Langford’s taste in clothes; and
  • A business model that markets the news content to the educated citizen who values knowledge and truth over a political ideology.

I don’t know if there are journalists and investors with the motivation and desire to meet these conditions, given today’s media challenges and partisan environment. The time is probably right to try to leap over the abyss. Wait much longer and it will be too late. The market (like nature) abhors a vacuum. And what’s left of the media-content consumer who is interested in news will find something else to fill the void.

I fear what happens to our democracy, nation, state, county and cities if we DON’T have a committed group of independent-minded individuals with the resources to deliver quality journalism.  I appreciate the efforts of all who remain committed to delivering quality journalism in these very challenging times.

Here’s a link to John Archibald’s unpublished column which triggered Ike’s request for readers to discuss the future of journalism in Birmingham.

Wade Kwon is also blogging about the unpublished Archibald column here.

We all know how Ben Franklin felt about the importance of the press and an educated and informed population. I’ll be writing more about Ben and journalism as part of The Ben Franklin Follies.

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Posted in: Democracy, Journalism