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Berger’s Burg: Put your faith in traditional news, not citizen journalism

U.S. newspaper circulation is dropping. The decline is attributed to advertising and readership lost to the Web. Over the past few years, much has been made of the rise of what is called “citizen journalism,” anyone who has the initiative to pursue the same stories as the traditional media and then put that information on the Internet. This infringement, among other non-professional disseminators of the news, has contributed to the decline.

Despite a pessimistic forecast, most newspapers remain profitable. “That’s encouraging,” wrote Alex Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic, in his 2009 book “Losing the News.” In the face of the convergence of the recession, 24/7 news technology and shifting demographics, Jones’ coffee cup is half full. “The story isn’t that newspapers are dying, the story is that, even though people can get the same content online for free, they’re still reading [traditional] newspapers,” he wrote.

“Some of the answers as to why they still buy could be the readers’ newspaper habits, the following of specific newspaper sections or even the thrill of solving the daily crossword puzzle,” according to Jones. Other answers, Jones suggests, may be that Americans are becoming aware that newspapers do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to reporting. When the newsroom goes dark, who or what will light the way?

But Jones’ view is not that of a romantic. He is a businessman and citizen who believes in the connection between quality news and a successful democracy.

His nightmare scenario is that current trends, if they continue, eventually could produce “a yawning disparity in accurate knowledge as there is in wealth .... We could be heading for a well-informed class at the top and a broad populace awash in opinion, spin and propaganda. Traditional newspapers [still] remain the ‘iron core’ of information.”

He submits that other news media by online and citizen journalists produce some news and investigative journalism, but traditional media produce the bulk. Thus far, only traditional media have the money and wherewithal to withstand inevitable court battles. Unknown is how some of the newer journalism entities could and would respond to similar challenges.

Jones does not shy away from charges that the media are biased, but insists the media are not monolithic. Reporters and editors are human and make mistakes, but they are also bound by standards and accountability matters. He, meanwhile, stakes great faith in Americans’ ability to distinguish between entertainment centered around public issues and traditional journalism. He predicts newspapers will develop new business models and survive.

In France, which has one of the lowest newspaper readerships in Europe, one paper, Mon Quotidien (My Daily), already has. It invites several of its younger readers — 18 to 24 — twice weekly to help pick stories for the paper, except for the front page. “We propose, they choose,” said an editor. The daily newspaper has since become more appealing to the younger set and circulation has gone up. This is an innovative way for young adults to stay informed and establishes a good attitude toward reading. Another French newspaper ships free copies to every teacher in France. Nothing is done via the Internet.

Should American newspapers adopt alternate methods of delivery? Yes, Jones said, but no matter how they try to reach an audience, the task newspapers perform remains the same. The job involves putting reporters, photographers and videographers out on the street so they can cover happenings. But they must still remain true to their “authentic self and committed to community, social responsibility and to quality.”

In portraying newsworthy events and the need to inform readers, no one does it better than professional reporters, not by citizens who fancy themselves journalists. Journalism is more than just putting one’s thoughts and speculations online for the world to see. Elements of investigation, fairness and ethics are what make professional journalism relevant and essential today and forever.

I share Jones’ optimism about the future of newspapers. Readers, I hope you will continue to need and read traditional newspapers — including this one — and value what we journalists do as professionals.

Incidentally in July 2011, I will have written 20 years of continuous Berger’s Burg columns, never missing one week. With your unceasing support, I intend to write them 20 years more.

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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