By Robin Rivers
An enthusiastic newshound with as much passion for the written word as for politics, I galloped into the newsroom of my hometown daily newspaper in 1990 with stars in my eyes. At age 18, I was ready to be one of those journalists who worked their way through university while working my way into the secret society of reporters who I revered as keepers of information to which no one else had access.
Every night after school I waited for the page designers to hit a big beige button on their HPs; rows and rows of type emerging from the printer for me to run from the newsroom to the press room basement where men and women laid out the newspaper by hand.
Eventually, I worked my way into a position writing obituaries (my life might possibly be a trope), a summer intern, the kid who got to go cover the story when a car mowed down pedestrians and everyone else was on assignment.
It was the first year of a chaotic decade and American newsrooms were bustling with three-pack-a-day smoking, vodka-drinking beat reporters alongside button-down business writers. Repercussions of Reagan, Bush, the imminent collapse of the U.S.S.R., A.I.D.S., America on the brink of the Gulf War—the world appeared to be at the edge of destruction and I wanted to write about it.
Veteran journalists around me earned their right to spend a year reporting and writing a single story. They had me, an eager-to-be reporter willing to do the work of filling the paper every day, and I did it with stars in my eyes, a burning lust for their desk when it became vacant.
It also was the year English engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and all of our lives shifted irreparably without us even noticing.
Today, a world without the Internet is akin to a world without air. How we ever functioned when directions came from a paper map, research was cataloged on microfiche, or phones were attached to walls makes every head in a given room shake.
Back then, as a young journalist, I had no idea what this WWW thing meant to my chosen profession. Once upon a time, the local daily newspaper was the only way one satiated their curiosity about the fire down on Main Street or caught up on town hall political news without having to attend a council meeting. The internet blew the lid off of people’s ability to access information, and the media was ill-prepared to manage that shift.
Archaic processes and non-intuitive funding models drove daily newspapers into a revenue-dumping madness. Craigslist stole classified ads from daily broadsheets along with the advertising dollars that served as a primary newspaper money pot. Yahoo took up the task of delivering comics, crosswords, and other print extras to computer users on-demand. Online advertising models failed. Newsrooms were gutted as a result.
Twenty-seven years later, a majority of newspapers have not successfully made the transition from print to digital and the press faces a much broader crisis.
Yes, it was revenues. Yes, it was untested delivery systems. Yes, it was any number of economic, social, and consumer factors that played into the reality that the relevance of “newsrooms of record” began to slip.
But, we weren’t paying attention to the real enemy chipping away at our credibility.
It turns out not a single one of us truly understood how the Internet would eventually strip the media bare, requiring it to recalibrate at the enormous price of pervasive public mistrust and an American administration bent on dismantling it.
Years ago, I sat at a journalism conference in Florida where the speaker told all of the young reporters in the audience that we had an ethical responsibility to democracy and society. We were amongst the few who would labor over hundreds of pages of legislation or other public policy, court documentation, or investigation records, and then turn around and tell the story to our readers in an effort to inform the public and hold public servants accountable.
We were the “storytellers of the tribe” and our tribe was democratic society. When we lost our place as the Fourth Estate, he told us, democracy will have failed.
Therein lies a whole other layer to this equation: the media faces a crisis of relevance today not because revenues are low or newsrooms are small, but because where we once served as gatekeepers, we no longer control the flow of information to the public. The internet bombed that gate—a gate only we had the keys to—and we’ve never been able to regain a place in society that politicians and the public respected as fundamental.
Let me be clear, I am in no way saying that provocative, important work is no longer being done by journalists in North America.
Look only to the critical reporting done through Peter Klein and the Global Reporting Centre out at the University of British Columbia as well as that of the Solutions Journalism Network, The Intercept, The Center For Investigative Reporting, and ProPublica.
What I am suggesting is that it is time for mainstream media to publicly recognize the populist revolt that has occurred against it and recalibrate.
The Internet has revealed the tentative and fluid nature of the power of organizations that should be protected under the U.S. Constitution or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You can now get news from anywhere. There’s no gate. There’s no meter for fact or fiction. The fundamental value of Freedom of the Press has become diluted, weakening our authority, our hard work, and our critical place in democracy as that final check and balance of those who must not be allowed to become collaborators in deceit.
While continuing to do that critical work, journalists must also begin to innovate around a societal repositioning of the fundamental role of the media. The Internet can be a portal for journalists to rise up again as an unrelenting watchdog of those who seek out power and influence in our democracy. It places journalists in an unprecedented position of obtaining access to information in ways that, prior to the web, we could never have imagined.
But, if the media cannot release itself from the old model of the gatekeeper of information for which there is no longer a gate and evolve into a relevant, trusted collaboration for the protection of the greater good, we have a much greater crisis on our hands when those who seek power and influence do so unchecked.