Postcard from America: Journalism is under attack, but has its saviours

A group picture of participants at The New Mexican in Santa Fe
A group picture of participants at The New Mexican in Santa Fe

For the past three weeks, this writer and 19 other journalists from around the world have been in the United States, touring the vast country. We are participating in the Edward Murrow Program, an aspect of the US government-funded International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). This spring’s Murrow fellowship is focusing on Research and Investigative Journalism. True to its theme, the programme has a coterie of journalists making waves in investigative and out of the usual journalism in their respective countries.

Aside from sharing information among ourselves, we have had meetings with dozens of Americans — journalists, scholars, researchers and other enthusiasts – in what was designed to expose the participants to this brand of journalism as practised here.

The experience so far is revealing common trends and challenges around the world, from the testimonies of the participants to the interactions we have had with American practitioners since our arrival. As the world is pretty universalising, journalism practice is showing the same pattern with little peculiarities from one country to another.

The role of journalists and journalism in the society, the adversarial lines, the changing patterns in news consumption and the challenges, if not threats, to the practice of the trade, are showing uniformity.

Free press and its discontents

There is the endless hide and seek between journalists as agents of progress and probity, and those on the other side – governments, crooked businesses and criminal gangs around the world. Journalists continue to battle the odds in service to truth and the good of society, from America to Palestine. This much is revealed by the annual ranking of press freedom released by the Reporters Without Borders last week.

America is famed for freedoms. The U.S. media is adequately protected and press freedom entrenched both by extant laws and long-settled tradition. However, journalists in the U.S. still complain about continuous efforts to undermine those provisions.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrined press freedom, among other fundamental rights, and moved on to bar even the Congress from tampering with that right.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” part of that important amendment reads.

However, almost every journalist I have met in these past days touring the U.S. have expressed apprehension about the threat to that culture now, like never before. It is obvious, from the most passive outside observer, that President Donald Trump and most of the American media are in a war of attrition. And none of them pretends about it. The Washington Post, for example, has recruited tens of journalists since Mr Trump emerged president. Researchers at Duke University are working on cutting-edge fact-checking tools to burst fake news and misleading claims with Trump worst hit.

What is dubbed as the sunshine laws – laws guaranteeing rights around access to information and a general transparency in government business – are in effect at the federal and the states. In places like New Mexico, there are additional provisions for open meetings. This means that it is illegal to have a council meeting behind closed doors. Such a meeting has to be publicly announced with the full agenda ahead of time and the outcome must also be made public.

But government being government everywhere, there are concerns around the U.S. of officials trying to avoid responding to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests in some instances. It is for this that nonprofits like New Mexico Foundation for Open Government are fighting back through lawsuits to ensure respect for such laws. Through donations by public-spirited individuals and pro bono services offered by a small team of lawyers, the association routinely institutes suits to challenge the denial of information. Nonprofits like New Mexico FOG come together under the National Coalition for Freedom of Information to push for the same cause.

Another worry around threats to free speech is what an expert called “resurgence in libel suits” being experienced in the past few years. For this, the North Carolina Press Foundation devotes a fortune in supporting its members involved in such lawsuits. To prepare for such days, publications like the nonprofit North Carolina Policy Watch, which is a strong new voice of investigative journalism, has enrolled in libel insurance.

Economic crisis hitting hard

From the experiences shared and briefings, one gets the feeling of journalism as an endangered profession. No. The business of news sourcing and dissemination is not being phased out.

But journalism as traditionally known is undergoing grave challenges which are as grim in the US as they are in Nigeria. The impact is most felt by the print media. Newspapers are fast laying off and print run is shrinking.

The best story that illustrates this is that of the bustling city of Philadelphia. Of about 10 major papers in the city, eight are gone and the two from the original ten are now under one roof. The Inquirer, a once coveted high-end morning paper, has gone through a series of upheavals since the beginning of its decline in the 1990’s from its glorious era of serial Pulitzer winning. At present, its staff are murmuring over the stagnation of salary for the last 10 years. The more robust papers publishing out of New York are not in anywhere insulated. Most American media organisations have folded up their bureaus, with attendant consequences of reduced content on places outside of their operational bases.

This grim situation did not just occur. It has enablers in the Internet invasion which affected media in two ways—news is now on the go, uncensored as it may be, and consumers have grown impatient of waiting for the editors. There is also the information glut, with so many things competing for attention making only the most attractive and the important win. The second issue is the revenue crisis which is hastened by the subversion of the middleman the media has played for hundreds of years, between advertisers and the public. Through opportunities provided by the Internet, advertisers can now reach their audience directly, making owners of interactive Internet platforms, rather than the media, richer.

At least two persons we met with have lamented what they see as a predatory incursion of big tech companies, notably Google and Facebook, into the media space. These platforms serve as conveyors of news sharing, or even aggregators, yet they do not credit the media financially with gains they make from media contents. “The Internet has killed us. Internet is also stealing from us,” a top editor in a North Carolina paper told us while explaining the unease.

Civic consequences

The decline of formal journalism has consequences beyond the job cuts and bankruptcy that afflicted papers like The Inquirer.

Aside from the financial crisis caused by the Internet revolution, another major concern consequent from this is the heightened phenomenon of fake news. Rumours and lies are as old as the human race, but the internet has given the banalest of such stuff wings to fly.

With a click, fake news goes out and makes it difficult for consumers to know the truth even when it eventually comes. It is, therefore, a constant race between journalists, whose job it is to correctly inform, and purveyors of fake information through blogs and social media platforms. There are a number of academic researchers and nonprofit organisations working to stem the tide in the U.S. But there are also concerns that technology may still make this task harder with advancements in artificial intelligence.

In addition, there are concerns expressed by experts here of the risk of having a ‘dumber’ citizens. If sources of information increasingly become social media pages and unprofessional blogs and quasi-news sites, it then means that informed decisions by citizens are affected in the negative.

Investigation as the new oxygen

All that has happened is largely out there. The next available person with a smartphone has already twitted about it. As we have seen with the mass shooting at the New Zealand mosque, the newsmaker could have actually streamed it. What then is there to report to your audience? This is where the challenge lies especially for the newspapering happening in Nigeria today.

News organisations have to, therefore, change the approach to news if the trade is to survive. No one is going to buy a morning paper with information that was all over the internet the previous afternoon.

American media organisations have shifted to that. Stories are, therefore, treated beyond the surface, with follow-ups on breaking news to get to what is not publicly known.

Investigations are not necessarily long term high-costing projects. It starts from the simple questions of why and how, into the big stories using datasets and travels.

Luckily, there are now available tools and support for journalists to pursue this line. They range from how-to resources to actual data and even synthesising tools. The trend is also collaborative investigation, which was most wonderfully exemplified by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The success of ICIJ’s Panama Papers investigation, which PREMIUM TIMES was part of, is now taught at Ivy league journalism schools like Columbia, as an example of the impact collaborative journalism can have.

Locals are loyal

Localisation is another rising journalism trend in the U.S. Despite the difficult times, it appears papers with narrow focus find it easier than the bigger ones. This is perhaps in tandem with the longstanding journalistic quality of proximity.

People like to read about what affects them, or what is happening in the communities next to them. It is largely for this focus, that the Santa Fe New Mexican is still standing. The paper is focused and circulated only in parts of the southwestern state.

Elsewhere, other local media outlets are also not doing badly. Outlets like the WUNC Radio in Durham and the creative four-member online platform, the Billy Penn, are focused on their immediate communities.

‘We have your back’

The beauty of American journalism is the security it has for its journalists. Free speech is absolutely guaranteed and there are a thousand and one organisations who literally tell you; “we have your back”. There is a preponderance of organisations working to make the environment even better and ensure journalists are not harassed or targeted for what they do.

Training and training opportunities also abound, with a very good synergy between scholars and practitioners. The schooling received by students often makes them ready-made for the industry, as they are taught by a faculty of teachers who are themselves journalists. At Columbia, for example, about 90 per cent of the academic staff are former or active journalists, and students learn by doing. It is similar at the University of Pennsylvania where award-winning journalists train future reporters.

Organisations and researchers are also working hard to figure out financial models for journalism at a time like this. It was the focus of a 2018 book by Magda Koniecza entitled “Journalism Without Profit”. Prof Koniecza, who has herself worked in a German newspaper which has closed shop, explored the expanding world of nonprofit newsrooms to see if that would be journalism’s next option.

Other aspects of the trade, like digital security for journalists, in the age of server attacks, are receiving adequate attention.

In sum, the industry and lovers of a free society are in a very concerted war to save journalism as an essential ingredient of free and democratic societies. The thoughts of a decline in journalism and its audience are giving many sleepless nights, and they are doing something about it.

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