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May 8, 2005

Mr. Rutten, Our Thinking Has Evolved. Has Yours?

Leonard Witt, guest blogger here. Jay is in Australia. Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times joined the death of newspapers debate by doubting PressThink's post "Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die." That debate Jay can address. Rutten also took a poke at civic journalism. My reply...

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times writes an opinion piece with the headline: Regarding Media Don’t Print the Obit Just Yet. He says as the railroads still run today, so will print media survive into the future.

He probably is right, but think what might have been if the railroads had better understood the future and made an honest effort to build a real public transportation system within and between cities and hamlets. The public would have been better off and so might the railroads. However, maybe Rutten’s analogy is on target for journalism of the future. We’ll have big media companies carrying the heavy freight, while the public makes its own way from idea to idea.

I only bring all this up because Rutten took a poke at civic journalism. He blames talk of the news media’s demise on three things. First the ideological commentators who:

want newspapers to die because their editors just won’t print the news they want in the language they demand…
Second are the academics for whom migration from one novelty to another has become a kind of career path. For them, the death of newspapers is the next new thing, something to be endlessly parsed and conferred over until the next new thing comes along. This is the world in which new criticism gives way to semiotics, which gives way to deconstruction, which well, you get the point. Does anyone remember communitarism and civic journalism? No? Well, they were the last flavor of the month, and let’s not go there.

Finally he buries the lead by blaming newspaper ownership, saying:

In fact, to an extent probably impossible to determine, the most recent declines in newspaper readership may be, in some large part, a consequence of excessive cuts in promotion and circulation budgets across the industry over the last five years.

If you want to read more about that later point look to Philip Meyer, an academic with civic journalism scholarly credits, who just wrote The Vanishing Newspaper. Or turn to Davis Buzz Merritt, co-founded of the civic journalism movement, and read his new book Knightfall.

What Rutten fails to realize is that much of the criticism and constructive ideas that grew out of public or civic journalism are still very much alive today, albeit with a slightly more evolved DNA. Its advocates have seen the opportunities embedded in the new technologies, and seized them, circumventing reluctant and often anti-intellectual newsrooms.

To follow that civic journalism continuum just look at what Jay Rosen is doing right here at PressThink. In the past Rutten and his ilk could write him off with their anti-academic slurs. But now in the era of We Media, it hardly matters what they think, or a least it matters a lot less.

I also will point Rutten to Jan Schaffer, the former director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, she now leads the J-Lab and is helping build citizen journalism models for the future.

Also Ken Sands, a long-time public journalism practitioner, now is in front of using new technologies to help newspapers and their audiences connect, just as he tried in civic journalism. Mr. Rutten, Ken Sands’ thinking has evolved. Has yours?

So why am I having this argument? After all Dave Winer, the who man helped make weblogs and now podcasting possible for the rest of us, said this weekend at BlogNashville that he doesn’t think any of us in the blogosphere should measure what we are doing against the mass media. The citizen publishing, citizen narrowcasting and citizen broadcasting movement has its own momentum and should define itself.

However, I spent nearly 20 years of my life in the newspaper business. I started at a tiny weekly and worked my way up to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. I love journalism. My daughter might be entering the business too. I agree with Rutten on this, I do think the demigods and the powerful would love to have a crippled press.

However, I thought the press was failing itself too years ago, and thought that through civic journalism I could do my little part in making it more complete—more connected to the audiences it was suppose to serve. Unfortunately, the newsroom is not very self reflective, which is evident in Rutten’s column. He points to academia, conservatives, lefties, and owners with just a passing reference that he and his newsroom colleagues play a role in the bigger story, which is as Rutten notes that Los Angeles Times readerships numbers last fall dropped 6.5% Monday through Saturday and 7.9% on Sunday.

Later this week I am going to post an IM Interview with Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a former Los Angeles Times journalist who turned academic. In that interview she talks about how, by avoiding large segments of the public, newsrooms practice “censorship by omission.” It leaves out women, minorities and whole communities. It is a newsroom flaw.

Civic journalists have been addressing this issue for 15 years—and looking for ways to solve this and other newsroom shortcomings. Did we succeed? Not yet, in large part because the journalists are so damn stubborn, change resistant and arrogant as heard in Rutten’s snide remark about “flavor of the month”—which this month and every other month in too many newsrooms is plain vanilla.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links compiled by guest blogger Leonard Witt…

This from Erik in comments and at the L.A. Observed blog:

Meanwhile, Michael Kinsley, Tim Rutten’s colleague at the LA Times, penned this somewhat satirical op-ed piece on saving the newspaper biz in today’s (Sunday’s) Washington Post…

Note from Witt: Tim Rutten, please contact the Indianapolis Star Tribune editor Dennis R. Ryerson and tell him that civic journalism is dead. It seems he missed your memo. In a Sunday editorial about the newspaper circulation he writes in part:

At The Star, we are committed to continuing, and improving, civic journalism…

More from Witt: I thought I might add that I have been blogging at the PJNet, the site for the Public Journalism Network for about two year. Some 6,000 unique visitors come to the site each month about 500 return each day. Unlike the LA Times, my readership grows. Seems like those readers also didn’t get your message about civic journalism’s demise.

Ken Sands, who is mentioned above in the blog, comments:

I can excuse the poke at civic journalism. That’s just ignorance speaking. But trying to blame the newspaper mess on the circulation and promotion departments? That’s hysterical.

Posted by Leonard Witt at May 8, 2005 6:55 PM