Yes, Anyone Can Be a Reporter

In his syndicated column yesterday, Leonard Pitts, Jr. bemoaned the decision by the New Orleans Times-Picayune to cut back its print edition to three days a week, and attacked the sentiment, most recently expressed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who might herself been quoting Matt Drudge, that the Internet allows “every citizen to be a reporter and take on the powers that be.”

Pitts immediately attacks the comment on the basis of its source, Palin. Then he wanders further from the point by conjuring the truly unpleasant conditions under which reporters, Picayune staffers no doubt among them, labored to ensure news got out in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast.

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 homes 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.

Yet nothing in this rather self-important prose tells us what’s so irreplaceable about printed newspapers as a platform for news delivery. Instead, we get a straw man.

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 originate news. Still, I can’t envision Matt Drudge standing his ground in a flooded city to report and inform.

One can say the same thing about Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann or Wolf Blitzer. Yet, come the next disaster, there’s no reason not to expect the same dedication from a handful of individuals who are driven to place themselves in the middle of an adverse, if not outright dangerous, event and document what is happening. Only this time they have the cheap video cameras, battery operated laptops and cellphones with wireless Internet connections. The news will get out.

What Pitts actually is lamenting is the end of the monopoly of institutional media. Big media won’t go away, and will certainly carve out a large space on the Internet, but it’s losing the ability to define news and confer legitimacy on a newsgathering enterprise. Pitts equates the loss of newspapers with the loss of skilled reporting. This fallacy needs to be called out because it fuels the contention , voiced by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Sen. John Kerry, and former Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, among other political leaders, that the government should prop up failing newspapers so they can compete against Internet news outlets. To his credit, Pitts never goes this far, but his arguments contain an unspoken invitation for others to do so.

At the end of his column Pitts says he doubts that “citizen journalists” have the credibility, knowledge or training of their newspaper or broadcast counterparts. Here, it helps to remember that we journalists did not truly join the professional class until the 1970s. Carl Bernstein, one-half of the reporting team that inspired a generation of j-school recruits, didn’t finish college. Peter Jennings, perhaps the best Middle East TV correspondent of his time, was a high school drop-out. What they did have, was that unique talent to sniff out news and follow a story where it led them.

My first boss at my first salaried reporting job, as old school a newspaper editor you would find, would give job applicants a convoluted press release to rewrite. The aim was not to test copy editing, speed, grammar or style, but to see if his prospective staffer could pull out the actual lead. More than anything, he valued and appreciated a reporter’s nose for news. To him this was the innate journalistic talent; everything else could be taught.

Newspaper companies don’t define news or reporters. News is timely, topical, compelling and significant. A reporter is anyone who can mine a topic-from something sweeping as global economy trends to as parochial as local city government-and communicate information that meets this criteria. And, yes, anyone can be one.