Bumper sticks were handed out in the newsroom yesterday: Democracy Depends on Journalism.Â This lovely and largely trueÂ sloganÂ was authored by The Newspaper Guild, of which I amÂ honored to beÂ aÂ card-carrying member. The slogan isÂ part of a campaign, SaveJournalism.orgÂ to dramatizeÂ the loss of jobs — about 44,000 over the last five years — by people like me.
While I worryÂ about my paycheck, andÂ what happens toÂ journalism in an online world, I can notÂ make the leap betweenÂ mass mediaÂ staffing levels and theÂ health of the republic. That would be as simplistic asÂ saying fewer cops lessens public safety.Â
Blame technology or praise it, butÂ “the collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles” — theÂ prime dictionary definition of journalism — haveÂ escaped the control of mass media.Â (For example,Â look at OpenServing.comÂ a forthcoming experiment in wiki-style news gathering.)
Perhaps I’m resigned to this because I’ve already surrendered oneÂ professional skillÂ to technology.Â In 1980 I co-founded a typography and small press printing shop. Desktop publishing and all manner of rapid print technologies blew that away. I survived. In 1990 I began the migration to my current job.Â Of course I was in my mid-30s then. It’s scarier in the 50s to start over but the economy really doesn’t give a damn about me.Â
I blow hot and cold on whether the shiftÂ from professional to citizen journalismÂ will be good or bad for society.Â I don’t imagine, for instance, that citizen journalists have the chops to replace the investigative skills that took media firms decades to develop. On the other hand mass media have beenÂ lazy watchdogs so maybe competition from blogs and user-generated content will be for the good of governance. (When I was a typographer I worried thatÂ amateurs, using desktop publishing, wouldÂ clutter up the presentation of material. If anything, design has flourished in more hands.)
So, yes, journalism is important to democracy. But journalism is mutating. We as professional journalists may ultimately be judged by how gracefullyÂ we translate our hard-learned values to the citizens whoÂ have the capability toÂ wield publishing power — andÂ we will have to do so as our jobs become the compost of the next media. But then we knew journalism was a calling when we came to it, didn’t we?
So God bless the union forÂ lamenting the attrition in our ranks. But maybeÂ the union should beÂ organizing citizen journalists, to help them gain market clout — and health insuranceÂ (here’s another plan in that regard). To lash the union to mass media makes no more sense than assuming that newspapers, magazine,Â radio andÂ television are the only vessels that can carry journalism.