Dear Journalism

This election campaign has been pretty crazy, hasn’t it? It’s been fascinating to watch. Exciting sometimes, and disgusting. But somehow I felt like you were next to us shaking your fist at the TV, too, when you should’ve been out on the street, applying a bit of your level-headed perspective and a whole lot of your inquisitive mind to unpick the many strands coming at us from all angles.

Instead you mostly just made everything a whole lot louder.

CNN, October 20, 2016

Your headlines quoted Trump directly. You topped articles about Clinton with videos of Donald Trump saying shocking things. You challenged Trump by saying, “He thinks Saddam Hussein killed terrorists ‘so good’. How scary and what terrible grammar!” And you posted videos of his speeches on Facebook and encouraged your readers to watch them and share them.

When Nigel Farage of the right wing UKIP party in Britain spoke at rallies defending Trump’s offensive statements BBC and all the rest posted the video on all their channels, a double amplification, this time with context.

You created deep cultural deficit by normalizing this kind of language in this way. Soledad O’Brien was right to eviscerate CNN for its shoddy coverage, and yet it never seemed to offer any sort of course correction. Will it now?

Your fact-checking efforts were worthy but ineffective. You made exhaustive lists that lasted for only moments in the public discourse.

You seemed to be aware of what you’re doing, but with only days before the election you are still doing it. The New York Times Editorial Leader on Thursday described Trump’s latest threats to Clinton in detail and its implications, articulating his plans with greater strength than he ever could’ve delivered himself. In contrast and wisely, The Washington Post put it in context and focused on the issues, not the quotes.

“News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” -Lord Northcliffe

It took a year or so following the announcement of his candidacy to offer any real independent challenge to Trump’s qualifications as a candidate for President of the United States.

But it was billionaire Warren Buffett, not Journalism, who finally discredited Trump’s claim that there was no reason Trump couldn’t release his tax returns. He can. He should. He hasn’t. And except for a brief moment in the campaign where The New York Times got their hands on his 1995 return he has gotten away with it now. How could you let that happen?

Mother Jones, Aug 30, 2016

Smaller independents like Mother Jones did some solid independent reporting, including the story on Trump companies encouraging workers to violate immigration laws. There was so much more to do here, but it seemed to stop.

David Fahrenthol of The Washington Post used old school methods to investigate Trump’s foundation which led to a major story about his impropriety there. Why was The Washington Post doing this practically alone?

Paul Lewis of The Guardian used video effectively to get beneath the traditionally vapid vox pops and ask the tough questions that surface the real issues affecting people who want Trump or don’t want Clinton. Again, why weren’t more journalists doing work like this?

Finally, why are we reading Newsweek’s expose on Trump’s illegal email policies and stories about the FBI’s support for Trump now? You discovered Trump’s strategy was the path to his corruption pretty late in the process.

It seems to me there are a few reasons. One is simply that this whole campaign is unprecedented in so many ways, and it’s just so easy to get caught up in the news cycle. You need to be competitive. And, of course, you need to survive, and easy traffic is (sometimes) easy money.

Unfortunately, in today’s media-savvy world that kind of hypocrisy is transparent to all and makes it impossible for you to challenge Trump on that basis.

As a result, you’re losing our trust, and that is much worse than losing your income. You can always find a way to make money, but not everyone forgives betrayal.

These are difficult times for you. Everyone knows that. And not everyone is in agreement about how important you are for a healthy society. You have to work harder than ever to make an impact.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the steady decline of your role in society maps inversely to the rise of right wing zealotry around the world. It’s not about liberal vs conservative. It’s a lack of perspective of what matters, a simple sanity check that disappears when you lose focus.

Your efforts to modernize and invest in technology may have cost you the more robust research and investigations that those investments are intended to support. A new web site, better mobile app, video gear and teams of interactive software developers aren’t silver bullets. The packaging matters, but without the substance it’s an empty vessel.

In any business you are what you measure. If you measure for profit against display advertising then you are going to keep traveling down this death spiral. If you measure impact against output then you are putting yourself on a much more challenging but much more important path.

I agree with Jeff Jarvis when he said, “After this election, the news business needs to enter into a brutal post-mortem of its performance and value.”

Until you choose impact over eyeballs the powerful will continue to take advantage of you and therefore everyone you serve the same way Donald Trump has done this year.

Sensible voices on both the left and the right worry about that, and people in all corners of society are ready to help you. It’s never been clearer how much you matter to us all. You just need to activate us, and we’ll be there for you.

A new era of Journalism starts now. Let’s digest the lessons from this year and move on quickly. We’ve got work to do if Oscar Wilde is still going to be right in four years time:

“In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever.”