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Recently I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on the state of journalism. The event was timely. That very day, news had broken that The Virginian-Pilot building had been sold to a condo developer, and that longtime PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer had died. During our conversation, we talked about the significance of both.
The sale of the Pilot building came as no surprise. It had been in the works for some time. But the finality of it underscored the fact that the newspaper’s presence in the community has diminished dramatically.
It’s a sad thing to witness. The Pilot, after all, was once an influential paper. Especially noteworthy is the era of Louis Jaffe, editorial page editor from 1919 to 1950. In 1929, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his crusade against lynching—a crusade that persuaded then-governor Harry Byrd to pass the first anti-lynching law in the South. Thirty years later, his successor, Lenoir Chambers, won a Pulitzer as well for his editorials supporting racial integration.
The paper remained strong for decades thereafter. When I first visited Norfolk in 1985, I was struck by the quality of the Pilot, with its staff of first-rate investigative reporters, fine feature writers, insightful columnists and great photographers. By the early 2000s, however, the downsizing had begun. Several rounds of layoffs ensued, and the news hole (space available for articles) was shrinking.
Today, it’s a shell of its former self. The day I sat down to write this column, I picked up a printed edition. For $1.50 plus tax, I got two slim sections—one devoted to sports, and one 12-page news section, only about half of which was devoted to local news.
There were a couple of reasons for the decline. One was internal. It was widely known that Frank Batten Jr., CEO of the Pilot’s parent company, lacked the passion for the newspaper business that his father had had when he was at the helm, even though he had the financial means to maintain its vitality.
It may be unfair, however, to put too much blame on him. Frank Jr. is a savvy businessman, and perhaps he saw the writing on the wall. Many papers around the country were struggling or had already shut down. And the decline is continuing. A few days after our panel discussion, Warren Buffett, who had been a champion of the industry long after many others had soured on it, announced that his company, Berkshire Hathaway, was selling its 31 dailies—including The Richmond-Times Dispatch—as well as more than 40 weeklies.
With these trends in mind, our panel pondered a central question: What is the future of journalism?
One general consensus is that dailies in print will eventually disappear altogether, although I believe that a few the majors—The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal—will continue to survive for a long time.
Beyond that, there was some disagreement about the future of print in general, and the future of news as a for-profit business. Jeff Maisey, the publisher of this publication, noted that he is making it work by keeping overhead low. John-Henry Doucette, a former Pilot reporter, is also doing an admirable job with The Princess Anne Independent News, which he launched in 2015.
What seems to be clear, however, is that traditional dailies—even online—are doomed. One panelist, ODU journalism professor Joyce Hoffmann, argued that the future lies in non-profit journalistic enterprises, and that might be the case. ProPublica, a non-profit founded in 2007, and The Center for Public Integrity, which dates back to 1989, both do valuable work. Closer to home, there’s the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, launched by two former Pilot staffers last year with the mission of focusing on stories within the state.
In spite of this, there is now a gaping void in our community: the lack of a substantial local daily of record. As a result, many important local stories go uncovered.
“There are still some good reporters at the Pilot,” one fellow journalist told me recently. “There just aren’t enough of them.”
In the absence of a large daily offering extensive coverage, citizens are left to pick up news here and there from various sources. This is not entirely a bad thing, since it exposes people to different perspectives. But dailies used to provide much of the necessary baseline news, putting everyone on the same page, as it were, and thus creating a cohesive community.
People also had a great deal of faith in the integrity of the old dailies. Today, by contrast, as we become more and more inundated with stories online, trying to get at the truth is like panning for gold in a stream. In an effort to find the good stuff, we must first sift through the mud of fake news, heavily biased reports, and promotional items masquerading as journalism.
Reflecting on this problem, the panel took up the significance of Jim Leher’s death. Lehrer was known for his impartiality. “He was an objective reporter,” one of the panelists noted.
I responded that I think “objectivity” is an impossible standard, since humans are subjective by nature. I prefer the phrase, “fair and balanced.” It is a shame that FOX News long ago adopted that as their slogan and proceeded to make a mockery of it, because that is what all reporters and editors should strive for—an open-minded consideration of all points of view, even if in the end they judge one point of view to have more validity than others, and express that in their coverage.
There are still a lot of good journalists and commentators who do that. But there are too many who don’t, and our communities are suffering, as a result, from confusion and polarization.
Nevertheless, this is where we are. With the disappearance of large, trustworthy regional news institutions—and the increasing volume of junk online—we must all become more discerning consumers of news and information, and more proactively engaged citizens. The future of our community—and our nation—depends upon it.