There's an arrogance out here in the blogosphere. The blog culture is to rip mercilessly on the traditional media, berating it for its lack of content, anemic investigative reporting and emphasis on fluff over substance. But where would bloggers be without it?
Easily half of what I write in this space is launched off of original reporting that comes from a traditional media outlet. I spend my Sunday mornings at the Church of The New York Times, and the Sunday Times alone probably provides me with a half dozen decent ideas for blogs every week.
So, Page One, the new documentary about a year or so in the life of The New York Times, is well worth seeing. It tells the story of what's happening in the modern media through the lens of the nation's most revered traditional news outlet. My favorite scene is when David Carr, the Times media reporter, shows up a critic by removing all the content from the critic's web page that was produced by mainstream media outlets. It literally cuts out probably three-quarters of the content.
The point is that we still need professional journalists and editors who ask tough, smart questions, take no bull-shit answers and strive for objectivity. We can't have a functioning democracy based on "information" that is nothing more than sharp-tongued insults slung back and forth from hyper-opinionated bloggers.
The question is how to pay for it. It costs something to pay good reporters and editors, even if we were to go totally electronic and forget about the costs of paper and production of the traditional newspaper. The same Internet culture that is competing with regular media outlets for the attention of readers is also raiding its advertising revenues.
What's to be done? One answer is to have what are essentially non-profit investigative journalism shops like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
And in some ways National Public Radio is the same concept. Ironically, NPR is doing well in large part because of a huge endowment given to it by the widow of Ray Kroc, the ultra-conservative founder of McDonald's. All that NPR reporting on the local foods movement and the dangers of fast food is in part funded from the grease and salt consumed by millions of Americans for generations. Go figure.
But that can't be enough. One idea I've had for local government is to have an in-house journalist in city government. I admit that it's an outlandish and even dangerous idea, but it could work. The idea would be to have a city hall reporter paid for by the city, but insulated as much as possible from politics by a board appointed by citizens and journalists, not the mayor or the council. This city journalist's job would be to cover the stuff that gets missed in the for-profit media, and to dig deeper and more analytically then the regular media can afford to do.
(This is probably less needed right at the moment in Madison, as city hall is well covered by Dean Mosiman, Joe Tarr and Shawn Doherty. Where it's really needed is at the county level or the congressional level where there is very little original, local reporting taking place.)
This kind of thing isn't without precedent. For years the state of Wisconsin had a Public Intervenor, who was on the state's own payroll but whose job it was to keep state officials honest. The Public Intervenor even sued the Department of Natural Resources occasionally when the department wasn't doing its job. The office was so effective at sticking up for the public interest that it got eliminated by the special interests who hated it.
One thing's for sure. Democracy only works when the voters know what's going on, and the trends for fact-based, objective reporting are not good.