Brendan McCarthy grew up a blue collar kid in a house where he’d read the leftovers of The Providence Journal until his dad passed on the “good sections” — sports and news. Today he’s a street reporter on a big city paper, The Times-Picayune, with a meager city desk staff of 14.
At 27, he’s climbed quickly in the reporting ranks. This year he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting and won Columbia University’s Mike Berger Award for his in-depth, human-interest reporting on “Homicide 37” and what it showed about policing and life in New Orleans.
So what’s he doing these days? Joining everyone else on his paper’s staff on the year’s second round of unpaid furloughs and wondering, even if fleetingly, whether he should consider the buyout the paper is offering.
I’m betting he’ll stay around. Printer’s ink runs through McCarthy’s veins; if you spend 10 minutes with him, you’ll know it. That’s precisely why his opportunity to “retire” eptomizes how far and fast print journalism has fallen.
It is not because McCarthy, an alum who came back to Emerson College this week to talk to our students, is a big star. As he says, “I’m still learning how to do this.” It is because dedicated young reporters like him are the profession’s future. He works his tail off, loves to read, invests deeply in his community, and cares about the words and the content he puts on the page.
Yet the buyout offer dangles. And if the business of journalism can so much as sow doubt in the Brendan McCarthys of the world, who will be left to cover the news?
Perhaps I should also be asking what will be left. The New York Times has announced that it will cut 100 more newsroom jobs by year’s end. Conde Nast just closed four magazines. Flexing their muscle in the face of a weakened newspaper industry, Worcester, Mass., police are refusing to release news to that city’s newspaper, with which the department is feuding. And that’s just the last couple of weeks.
It seems everyone these days has an idea of how to save the news. The wackiest I’ve heard yet was in a Maureen Dowd column that floats the notion news organizations could make money offering legalized sports betting on their web sites.(Bad idea, Maureen …. Who covers the story the first time someone is skimming?)
That the always entertaining Dowd would even fleetingly entertain this idea, proposed by Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, suggests,too, how desperate things have become.
A more sober appraisal this week, titled The Reconstruction of American Journalism is a lot longer but doesn’t offer a lot more hope. Written by former Washington Post Editor Leonard Downie and Columbia University Professor Michael Schudson, it notes that “there is unlikely to be any single new economic model for supporting news reporting.” It then catalogs a range of suggestions that include:
— Giving non-profit status to “any independent news organization substantially devoted to reporting public affairs.” (It’s not far-fetched. Such publications as Harper’s and Mother Jones already have it. But it won’t bail out existing for-profits.)
— Urging foundations and philathropists to give more money. (Sure thing … but. It seems as though an awful lot of people are competing for money these days.)
— Boosting the amount of local reporting on public radio and television. (And who is going to pay for this?)
— Building local, state and investigative reporting organizations at public and private universities as part of their educational mission. (Intriquing, and the seeds are planted in some places. But how many students have the chops? Who is going to hire them when they graduate and want to be paid? Why would the colleges devote part of their endowment to supporting the concept? And what pressures would there be to cover on-campus research in a certain light?)
–Creating a national “Fund for Local News … with money the Federal Communications Commission … could impose on telecom users, television and radio licensees, or Internet Service providers.” (The operative word is could. It won’t though, not in this economy.)
Mind you, I like these ideas a lot more than sports betting. But they don’t really answer the question: Where’s the sustained support for unfettered news reporting going to come from?
Which brings me back to Brendan McCarthy. He’s only been in New Orleans a few years, but he cares about the city. He’s invested in the story of each murder victim on the crime beat. He understands that a newspaper, ultimately, is its community’s glue.
In other words, he gets it. I can only hope what he gets, the passion of city newsrooms, their importance in defining and sustaining place, isn’t merely a footnote of America’s past, but also plays a role in the country’s future.
Democracy relies on honest information. Blogs like this may engage and occasionally entertain. But if they’re to have substance, someone first has to find and cover the news.