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Keeping Journalism Alive

Conventional journalism is in trouble these days, for a number of reasons. True, people, especially young people, don’t read newspapers as much as they once did. And that’s a factor.

But the real problem is that the economic base of virtually all newspapers has been severely damaged by the internet. Newspapers always made their money from the revenue they reaped from advertising, particularly local classified advertising.

If you lived in Saline or Ada or Flushing or Royal Oak in 1990, and you wanted to sell a used boat or hire a short-order cook, your best and often only option was to place an ad in your local newspaper. The money papers took in as a result enabled them to hire the reporters they needed to ferret out news. Newspapers have always produced the vast majority of what today is called “content” -- stories obtained through conventional news-gathering techniques.

These are often time-consuming, heavily labor-intensive, and dependent on the skills of trained journalists, which are often little understood and too easily dismissed by people who think what reporters do is similar to ranting on blogs and taking pictures with a smart phone.

But beginning in the 1990s, ads began to move to the internet, where sites like Craigslist often let people post them for free. Newspapers developed online editions and sell online advertising, but the revenue they get from them is only a tiny fraction of what it was. Newspaper circulation has also dropped dramatically.

The Detroit News, for example, had nearly 700,000 subscribers thirty years ago. Today, that’s fallen to fewer than 100,000, even when online only subscriptions are counted. The newspaper has fewer pages, fewer reporters.

That means fewer things are covered, too. But there is still some very good work being done. Every year, our journalism faculty at Wayne State University selects a journalist of the year, and this year, picking the winner was easy.

We chose Chad Livengood, who covers Lansing for the Detroit News. He is the reporter who broke the Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat sex, lies and audiotape scandal that resulted in their being forced out of the legislature. Livengood, who is in his early thirties, did not do this by tweeting, blogging, or putting pictures on Instagram.

He did it the old-fashioned way, the way Woodward and Bernstein uncovered Watergate. He worked his beat and cultivated sources. He did his homework, and wore out shoe leather.

When he was falsely and absurdly accused by one of the parties of being the perhaps mythical text message blackmailer, he didn’t let it rattle him; he just kept doing his job.

Livengood knows government; a Michigan native, he’d covered state capitals in Delaware and Missouri before he was thirty years old.

He’s also a normal, decent person, who makes it clear on Facebook that all this was secondary to the fact that his daughter turned three yesterday.

Most of what he and other reporters do is not glamorous, unless you think poring over old pension records and sewer contracts sounds like fun. But it is vitally necessary to keep democracy working and those who run our governments honest and accountable.

Somehow, we need to find a way to afford journalism, if we want our society to survive.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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