Eat Your Spinach

In writing yesterday about the latest trends and figures in online content sales, I ended by bemoaning the fact that “general news” — the category that would encompass much of journalism — was a slim and declining slice of the overall pie. Today I point to an essay that offers a teeny ray of hope for wannabe muckrakers — who also have the perhaps unrealistic expectation of remaining in the middle-class.

First, it was an item by Poynter Online columnist Steve Outing that alerted me to the piece written by Northwestern University journalism professor Rich Gordon. Since this is my jaundiced take of his work, you’d be wise to read the essay, “Online opportunities make journalism’s future bright,” in its entirety.

Gordon, a print reporter, turned new media guy, turned teacher, outlines the problem with what I call “eat your spinach” journalism — investigative and explanatory articles that take time to write, are a labor to read, piss off powerful folks, and are therefore tough to directly support with advertising. As Gordon writes:

“We’ve relied on newspapers, the major TV networks and local TV news to uncover problems in government, business and society that need to be remedied. This kind of public-service journalism has kept government officials honest, contributed to the punishment of evildoers and rallied public support for social change. But who will produce this kind of journalism if big companies don’t invest in it?”

Gordon goes on to summarize the history of U.S. journalism, from the Revolutionary War-era pamphleteers, to the rise of the penny press, to radio and television, and the concentration of mass media today into a handful of conglomerates. So as information consumers he — as should we all — cheers the explosion of information outlets — “500 million channels,” he says, noting some of the standouts: San Francisco-based Salon Magazine, bloggers Glenn ( Instapundit) Reynolds and Xeni ( BoingBoing) Jardin, and former journalist turned author and blogger Dan ( Shanghai Diaries) Washburn.

And then, having shown us the rainbow, Married Muckrakers With Children start looking for the pot of gold — or at least the paycheck. It is at this point that Gordon writes:

“It’s less clear that Internet-based media can fulfill the public service role that newspapers, network TV and local stations — with their deep pockets, experienced journalists and large audiences — have played during the mass-media era.”

Okay. I get it. So the bright future of journalism has yet to be invented. And, bright though it may be, it won’t necessarily be renumerative. All fine and good. I simply hope it comes with a health plan.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media,