In 2005 when their city drowned, the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune stayed in it longer than common sense and simple prudence would dictate. People who had lost homes, loved ones, and their city itself concentrated on gathering the news and putting it out. They finally left huddled in newspaper delivery trucks, water up the headlights, decamping to Baton Rouge, 75 miles away, where they went right back to reporting the news.
Last month, that paper announced it was cutting staff and suspending daily publication, moving to a three-days-a-week schedule. We draw ever closer to the once-unthinkable day some major American city has no newspaper whatsoever.
All of which lends a certain pungency to something Sarah Palin said recently at a conference of conservative activists in Las Vegas. "Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be," she said. According to POLITICO, she was quoting Matt Drudge. Ordinarily, you would dismiss it as just another silly thing Palin said. There is no shortage of those.
But these are hardly ordinary times for journalism. So forgive me if I am disinclined to let it go.
As it happens, I spent nearly a week on the Gulf Coast in Katrina's wake. One night, I had the distinct honor of sleeping in an RV in the parking lot of the Sun Herald in Gulfport, Miss., part of an army of journalists who had descended on the beleaguered city to help its reporters get this story told. The locals wore donated clothes and subsisted on snack food. They worked from a broken building in a broken city where the rotten egg smell of natural gas lingered in the air and houses had been reduced to debris fields, to produce their paper. Shattered, cut off from the rest of the world, people in the Biloxi-Gulfport region received those jerry-rigged newspapers, those bulletins from the outside world, the way a starving man receives food.
It made me very proud of what we do for a living.
"Every citizen can be a reporter," she says.
No, neither Palin nor her acolytes are to blame for the state of daily newspaper journalism. Rather, the state of daily newspaper journalism only proves English majors should not be allowed to make business decisions. Only English majors could give their product away (that is, online), then be surprised to see revenues decline.
Palin's sin - and she is hardly alone in this - is to consider professional reporters easily replaceable by so-called citizen journalists like Drudge. Granted, bloggers occasionally - and only occasionally - originate news. Still, I can't envision Matt Drudge standing his ground in a flooded city to report and inform.
By contrast, my Miami Herald colleague, Elinor J. Brecher, was one of the reporters who rushed toward the destruction in New York City on 9/11. Another colleague, Jacqueline Charles, spends weeks at a time on the ground, reporting the devastation in Haiti. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times slips into dangerous places to cover genocide and sex slavery. Carolyn Cole and Brian van der Brug of the Los Angeles Times send back stunning images of the tragedies in Japan. And every day, thousands of their colleagues attend the council meetings, pore over the budgets, decipher the court rulings that help the rest of us understand our cities, nation and world.
Will "citizen reporters" replace that function? Will they have the resources, the credibility, the knowledge, the training or even the desire to do so? No.
And not all the arias sung by Palin and like-minded people to new media and the do-it-yourself "journalism" of ideological crank cases will change that. The function served by daily newspaper journalism is critical to the very maintenance of democracy. It's time we recognized that.
I plead guilty to tooting my own profession's horn. Somebody needs to.
© 2012 Miami Herald