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Opinion: We are in the end times of professional journalism

Mark Chapman

NancyOnNorwalk is reprinting this 2016 column by the late Mark Chapman at the request of a reader. Then-NancyOnNorwalk’s co-publisher and editor, Chapman had been a full-time journalist for 38 years at papers ranging from small weeklies to large dailies from Boston to Sarasota, Fla. The reader found the article moving and printed it to save, and is impressed at how relevant it remains today.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Internet.

I love the speed, the breadth and depth of information that can be found by anyone so inclined. I love that I can reconnect with old friends and acquaintances who should have been friends from decades past.

I hate that that same speed, depth and breadth can and is so often intentionally misused, or just poorly used, a fact of humane nature.

I love that the Internet is giving us a way to keep our heads barely above water at this late stage of the game; I hate that it is the Internet is what helped destroy journalism to begin with.

I could cast a big-picture net here, make connections to the death of real journalism, the cheapening of what passes for news, and the tidal wave of anger that’s has brought us to the cusp of putting a real estate wheeler-dealer and TV reality personality a step away from the White House. I could draw the timeline between the fictional but representational Gordon Gekko and “Greed is Good” and the crumbling of the institution that had, until then, kept the American voters informed about what and who their candidates really were – the important stuff, not who they might have slept with or how big their digits were.

But others have done that, and they are doing it with increasing frequency.

No, this is personal.

Columbia University journalism professor Dale Maharidge wrote a longform investigative piece for The Nation with the lead-in: “As newsrooms disappear, veteran reporters are being forced from the profession. That’s bad for journalism—and democracy.”

The lead paragraphs:

“Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 Pulitzer Prize–winning 
play Death of a Salesman opens with musical direction: ‘A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises.’ The play follows Willy Loman, past 60, as his grasp on life crumbles amid job troubles. When, at the end of Act II, he reaches his beaten-down end, the melody soars again, this time a requiem. ‘Only the music of the flute,’ writes Miller, ‘is left on the darkening stage….’

“I heard this flute’s dirge throughout last summer and fall, as I made the rounds talking with downsized journalists — men and women who had gotten hooked on the profession as young, ink-stained idealists, only to find themselves cast out in mid- or later life. These veterans spoke of forced buyouts and failed job searches — of lost purpose, lost confidence, even lost homes. I had known of the decimation of my profession: I’d read the statistics, seen the news articles, watched old friends pushed from jobs as bureau chiefs, editors, senior reporters, into the free fall of freelance. But the texture of their Lomanesque despair surprised me. There were some grim moments.”

This could be the story of my life.

After being laid off by the crumbling and fumbling Daily Voice shortly before its bankruptcy – the financial one – I claimed unemployment and set about applying for jobs all over the Northeast and East Coast – nearly 100 newspapers, magazines and websites. After all those years in the business including 19 years combined at the Boston Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune (owned by the NY Times and, at the time, a 100,000-circulation daily, 130,000 Sundays), I got 10 phone calls, five in-person interviews. No offers.

For years, all I had to do was get an interview and I had the job. Not anymore. Age and experience are not my friends. The limp and the cane add to the problem, of course, but old-time journalists are being pushed out everywhere in favor of aggregators, “content developers,” and curators. People who want to actually cover the news completely, in stories longer than 400 words, are quickly kicked to the curb. We are more trouble than we are worth.

Read The Nation story. It’s long, but anything worth reading generally is.

Something shorter, more contemporary culturish? Check this out: It’s the people who made “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe’s investigative team that broke the priest-sex scandal wide open.

So why am I whining about this now? Nancy and I have this little government watchdog website in an 87,000-person city in the metropolitan New York area, with a clutch of devoted readers and a whole lot more readers who may not be quite as devoted but keep coming back, according to our analytics programs.

Why now?

Because we are coming up on a presidential election in which horrible media coverage is playing a major role. Because corporate media and pseudo-journalistic media have created a distrust and dislike of the very institution that should be protecting the people from the lies, the distortions, smoke and the mirrors.

And because, on a very personal level, we see we have reached out to our readers, we have made our case, our plea, for support as we try to do on a local level when the national media – and some of the locals – are failing to do. And, while a few hundred people have gone over and above what could be expected or even dreamed about, the other 8,000 people who read us – that figure is Quantcast’s individual people number, not the misleading unique visits or total visits – have not.

We get it. This is a democracy, and a capitalist society. People vote with their feet and their wallets. We at NoN are no different than those folks in The Nation story, or the many, many others with whom I have worked who have changed careers or who are trying to find different ways to eke out a living, supplement their social security checks, as they read what’s offered and wonder why the public has accepted this trashing of what once was a noble profession.

We have read many times some of our commenters telling people who need affordable housing that they are dragging Norwalk down, and that, if they can’t afford to live here, they should find someplace else.

We hear you.

10 comments

Piberman November 4, 2019 at 10:48 am

Journalism was never a real profession like law, medicine, etc. Reporting/analyzing news was always at bottom a commercial activity. Even though some practicing their “craft” were truly outstanding. Nowadays it seems every “journalist” has an ill disguised “bias”. So its becoming “interesting”. How our Republic survives is an open question. Sigh.

Cris Bowers November 4, 2019 at 2:43 pm

Beautifully written, and heartbreaking. In this piece, the late Mark Chapman (whom I sadly did not know) has expressed, with great facility, some of the thoughts that keep me up at night. I found his article so true and so moving that I responded by doing something shocking–I got out my wallet and made a contribution. It’s not much, because I really have to watch my pennies. But I figure it’s really worth a little sacrifice to support something so vital; nothing less than, as the old Superman TV show used to extol, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Or what used to be our way before we lost it by devaluing real journalism — a loss that threatens democracy.

I’d like to suggest that everyone who reads NoN do the same. Send in the cost of a Starbucks coffee or a meal out. Whatever you can. Help prevent the extinction of quality journalism. In memory of a talented journalist or to stand up for an American institution that’s under attack.

Maybe you’ll rest just a little bit better tonight. I will.

Tysen Canevari November 4, 2019 at 4:19 pm

Nancy, You and Mark created a wonderful forum to tackle the topics that are at the forefront of Norwalk. One can only imagine the tireless effort it takes to keep NON running. Thanks for what you do and I am sure he is so proud of you for carrying the torch. God bless him!

John Miller November 4, 2019 at 6:35 pm

Thank you for posting this Nancy. I’ll second Tysen Canevari’s comment. Thank you for what you and Mark created and what you have continued.

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