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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fewer newspapers but more reporters

By Dick Hirsch

You probably haven’t realized this, but despite the decline of newspapers and the continuing layoffs in the remaining newsrooms around the country, there are more journalists than ever foraging around, hopeful of finding what they consider to be a story.

Welcome to the age of the citizen journalist. A purist would probably recommend making that title read “journalist,” with the quotation marks signifying the existence of doubts about the authenticity of some of those who work under that description. I am not going to do that, however, since I have always seen people with varying levels of ability operating with that designation. So, if somebody adopts that title, it’s fine with me.

They represent the new age of journalism, being bloggers in what has been characterized as the blogosphere. The word blog is a relatively new term, a condensation of web + log. All an aspiring blogger requires is a computer and access to the Internet in order to become part of the information explosion. There are any number of estimates of the number of bloggers operating in the US, the most conservative of which is about 20 million, with more signing on every day.

The blogs are generally a combination of news and opinion. I’ve always favored freedom of speech, but some words of caution seem appropriate here. There are some experienced and knowledgeable professionals, but most bloggers have no training in the essentials of reporting. What they have is an abundance of opinions and, like the loudmouth at the other end of the bar, they believe they have every right to express them. I suspect that most bloggers work in a vacuum; they don’t have editors examining, editing and approving their work before it is made public.

News judgment can be an elusive quality, with the merits of certain coverage often debated by professionals. There are no such controls with independent bloggers. Believe it or not, it takes a modicum of talent plus experience to prepare an objective news report. Those qualities appear to be scarce on many blogs. That’s why I suggest readers of such blogs proceed with care and read with discrimination. Maybe you admire a certain blog; it may be an outstanding example of today’s journalism, but the information superhighway is flooded with misinformation, much of it on blogs.

News sources are valuable for reporters, although you cannot believe everything someone tells you. That’s even a well-accepted premise in the world at large, outside of journalism. Somehow the facts must be gathered and weighed and a determination made about whether the result appears to be accurate and worthy of dissemination. Some sources don’t wish to be identified with the information they propound, and, thus, anonymous sources are of limited value.

For years I sought to develop a reliable source. When I first started my reporting career, it didn’t take long for me to notice that the older reporters all had reliable sources, people who would pass along information, making reporters aware of potential stories. Those sources wished to remain anonymous, but when their past performance proved to be credible their status was upgraded to reliable.

Even the managing editor, although desk-bound, had some such sources remaining from his old days on the street. When a major story was developing---a grand jury investigation or an industrial expansion, for example---he would get on the phone and begin contacting his reliable sources. When he finished, he would triumphantly pass the information over to the appropriate person who was gathering the facts for a story with these familiar instructions:

“Just attribute that to a reliable source.”

I’m proud to say I eventually developed several reliable sources to whom I could direct inquiries in certain situations. It worked very well for awhile, but there came a time when I was no longer satisfied. I wanted more.

I wanted to trade up and develop those ultimate gems of the news business, unimpeachable sources. You’ve surely seen references to unimpeachable sources, individuals of superior insight. Sources at that level never disclose their roles, even to spouses, siblings or close associates. Their information is golden, so reliable that it is never questioned, let alone impeached. After years of effort, I managed to develop several such contacts. We’re not in touch anymore, but just the other day I saw one at the mall. We exchanged greetings, but there was no reference to the old days. Ask yourself whether today’s average blogger has that kind of support.


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