Last year saw over 14,700 newsroom jobs cut, the online layoff tracker Paper Cuts estimates. Sound like another casualty of the recession? Not quite one in five employees had lost their job in better times, between 2001 and 2008. Unfortunately, this industry has no hope of a government bailout or even better prospects of an improved economy. It is the fourth estate in shambles.
Its fate isn’t new: For years, newspapers nationwide have merged, acquisitioned and cut staff. Topics that once deserved their own bureau now have blogs re-reporting second-hand stories. We’ve seen it coming for years, but only now can we see beyond journalism’s hapless decline. There is a place for reporting even in a post-newspaper world democracy itself requires it but it’s no doubt going to be different.
Like many other beats, higher education news has suffered, and newsrooms with original reporting have been replaced with blogs. Blogs, though, are mostly known for re-circulating information and critically examining it, certainly not for breakthrough findings. Meanwhile, universities increasingly look past the middleman reporter and share updates directly with the world.
One need not look farther than Rochester and the University to see how the world is practically responding to journalism’s challenges. In the fall, UR helped launch Futurity.com, a Web site for a consortium of universities to publicize their research. It’s a new arm of university communications using Web 2.0, to fill the void left by emaciated science and education news. The dual goal of Futurity is better communication with journalists and the public directly.
As impressive as it is, sites like these do not fully compensate for what has been lost outside scrutiny. Instead, we have reached a new era where conflict of interest is prevalent, and to an extent it’s becoming ethically acceptable.
But a March 5 editorial in the Harvard Crimson argued there’s another answer, at least for education news, where college newspapers play a greater role. This is a reminder that college papers, the CT included, have a growing responsibility to represent interests beyond the campus community, since local papers have faced cutbacks just as large ones have. It is lucky for us all that in the short run, college and graduate school journalism doesn’t seem to be going anywhere while the job market has shrunk, journalism schools have inexplicably grown. So, in the meantime, students are still available to work unpaid or for meager stipends.
But even as the medley of amateur college journalists is tasked with a new mission, they too face similar business decisions. Like anywhere else, the CT had to trim down (quite literally, our diets) when advertising revenue went down. Other student papers, that are for-profit, have been afflicted in the same ways the national papers have.
The irony may be that our unpaid, student-driven paper may be the most fortunate. There are no layoffs or downsizing, and so the concessions are relatively small. But the question remains whether scraping by is a sustainable situation for any college paper.
So, although on a smaller scale, college papers have the ethical choice to make as well: whether the integrity of financial independence is worth the risk. The CT chose the risk when it went independent two years ago, but as other papers have done, it is easy to go the other way their newspapers are comfortably subsidized by the student government or school.
If college papers are to take the reigns of higher education and even local reporting, then the blurred lines of funding becomes a greater issue. But sovereignty alone isn’t the whole problem students have limited resources and contacts, along with concerns of losing valuable ties within a small university.
The journalistic world increasingly faces a choice. For college students, the choice can be between school independence and the comfort of a subsidized budget. For the rest, it’s a question of when journalistic independence is needed and when conflict-of-interest stories are acceptable.
In the end, partially biased reporting found in sites like Futurity may not be catastrophic. At least the information still circulates, but the burden of scrutiny transfers from the reporter to the reader.
Leber is a member of the class of 2011.