Print-video-Web combos making for healthy journalism

Friday, February 29, 2008

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Daily journalism is not only alive but very well — despite the economic turmoil of moving from newsprint and home delivery to electrons and the Web.

There’s no minimizing the wrenching shifts in advertising, staffing and style that are the stark facts for newspapers — and to some degree television and radio, too — in the Internet world.

But there’s also a need to spend a moment celebrating what’s good about journalism today, and what in fact is getting better.

The First Amendment’s provision for a free press doesn’t specify what kind of “press.” The nation’s Founders certainly could not have envisioned Google or the dot-com world. But they left room for it as a concept — one more means of reporting information as a counterbalance to the power of government, as a watchdog on how that government operates.

The winners will be announced March 7 in this week’s judging for the annual Scripps Howard Foundation national journalism awards. But looking at all the entries, not just winners, I can give you a general report on what the judges — and readers, and viewers, and online audiences — saw about the state of the nation’s free press:

  • Investigative reporting that the judges, in wrap-up interviews with Scripps Howard Foundation CEO and President Mike Philipps, said was filled with “passion … commitment … enthusiasm” and that was “relentless in going after the story for the reader.”

  • Storytelling that judges said was “incredible … compelling … and straightforward,” in the words of contest judge Steve Lambert of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group. Others cited innovative reports that used both print and Web to go beyond databases and narratives to accounts from real people, in their own words.

  • Reports that one judge said “told you what you need to know” about issues ranging from scam artists that target the elderly to government officials who tried to hijack an entire local government structure to appallingly bad treatment of war veterans.

  • Editorial voices that “have a passion for the community, that care about people, that provide a human connection” to issues large and small, said professor Terri Hynes of the University of Florida. Those institutional voices — as a counter to those who find modern journalism disconnected and arrogant — “provide a place where a community can meet, and where a community can be built,” Hynes said.

  • An “all tech” blend of “low-tech” (old-fashioned “shoe-leather reporting”) and high-tech presentations including video and detailed information from government records that make possible dramatic, vital reports that simply could be done in a print-only era. Jose Luis Benavides from California State University, Northridge, said such reports were journalism that “proved its worth for a democratic society.”

    In an era when critics of a free press dwell on paparazzi excesses and focus criticism on trivial reportage about the latest woes of pop-culture princesses, Americans need to remember that a free press at its best is our best defender — uniquely positioned to expose private and public abuses, hold officials accountable and provide accurate and reliable information about an increasingly complex world.

    Had they seen what we judges saw over the past two days, no doubt those who wrote the First Amendment and its provision for a free press would be proud.

    Montclair State update
    Students, faculty and staff at Montclair State University in New Jersey will have a student press free from student-government control, after school administrators stepped in to settle a campus dispute by separating funding for the paper from budget control by student association leaders. (I wrote about this in my Inside the First Amendment column Feb. 10. See link below.)

    University president Susan Cole said she agreed with student editors that the situation now “poses an unacceptable obstacle to a free press. I agree with the underlying principle that government and a free press must remain separate.”

    The university says it will guarantee funds to continue printing the newspaper and set up an independent funding mechanism by a target date of July 1. In January, the Student Government Association froze funding for the paper — preventing it from publishing — in a dispute over legal fees related to the newspaper’s contention that the SGA was violating open-meetings laws.

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