Wednesday, April 1: Healing the news

I had originally planned to write on a different topic today, but events move fast lately. And so much of New York State is sick, not just the people.

I finished the first draft of this blog almost a decade ago, and put it aside. Since then, almost everything has changed about the upstate New York news ecosystem (on which we, the social media commentariat, completely rely). Things got oppressively corporate. Newspapers were sold. Newspapers went away. Media companies relied on clicks by vicious commenters. Editorial and proofreading standards declined (see: vicious commenters). Newspaper advertising morphed into obnoxious plastic bags of ad circulars, thwacked weekly into the driveways of non-subscribers whether they liked it or not. High-quality journalism began to seem more and more like a side project pursued by a few dedicated people who were only incidentally still on a payroll. (I went to journalism school and someone said to me a few years ago, “Gee, you must be glad now that you didn’t go into that field.”)

In the last 48 hours, Gannett and the Buffalo News have both furloughed staff, which is a huge blow to people all across upstate New York who are desperate for the vital local news that MSNBC and Fox just can’t give them. More furloughs and layoffs can be expected daily. Journalists are now considered essential workers in 30 states, but it isn’t saving their jobs.

And the more threadbare the local news organizations get, the less respect they are shown. We all know about the abuse heaped on journalists by Trump, but it’s pretty flabbergasting to hear that the county executive of Erie County hasn’t even been giving real press briefings in a bona fide local emergency. (Not a criticism that can be leveled around here, thankfully.)

What can be done? The Atlantic:

The federal government can do something quite concrete right now: As part of its stimulus plans, it should funnel $500 million in spending for public-health ads through local media.

A stopgap measure, but we are going to need an analogue to the WPA that is truly massive in scope and touches every ailing institution. And if the federal government won’t do it, someone on the state or even local level should.

In their intermittently bright moments, state and local leaders know what has to be done about the coronavirus and about their economies, even if they can’t see how to get there and even if they’re still giving lip service to “normal.” It’s about being flexible, sensible, disciplined, courageous and willing to forever dump “business as usual.” This approach has to be applied by our entire society to our interactions with each other as well, and in healing not just our sick patients, but our sick institutions – including journalism.

There’s a low-tech thing called “public television” that we used to have, and incredibly, it still comes in handy in a public crisis. It’s not very clever and flashy, but it is smart and utilitarian. Maybe we need to stop rewarding cleverness and start rewarding utility, much like we need to stop rewarding brashness and start rewarding courage. We all understand implicitly that our health care workers and even our cashiers are exposing themselves to danger, but journalists have to go outside and get stories too.

Maybe, in a time when everyone is beginning to understand that they have to serve in the ranks of public health (whether it’s on the “front lines” or just keeping the “home fires” burning) and thinking about being willing to pay the soldiers better, we could have a two-prong approach to journalism ourselves: 1) Pay the soldiers better, and 2) ourselves contribute not just to “public health” but also “public knowledge” even if it’s not our chosen profession.