ANDREA NEAL: Journalists still make a difference

2013-05-01T00:00:00Z ANDREA NEAL: Journalists still make a differenceBy Andrea Neal nwitimes.com
May 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A recent survey ranked newspaper reporter as the worst career of 2013, just below meter reader and lumberjack, but you wouldn’t guess it from the stories told by journalists who gathered in Bloomington to see six of their own inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Journalism “still makes a difference,” said Paul Tash, one of the inductees and chairman of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida. “It still makes a very big difference.”

In an age of 24/7 TV and breaking news via text message and Twitter, it’s good to be reminded of the role print journalism plays in watch-dogging power and watching out for the interests of the poor and vulnerable.

Technology has changed the profession, as we saw after the Boston Marathon bombings when citizens became front-line investigators, scouring cellphones for photos that might contain news.

But one thing hasn’t changed: Good journalism requires skillful research, willingness to ask questions and desire to make a difference.

Those traits distinguished the 2013 Hall of Fame members, who included Melissa Farlow, a photojournalist born in Paoli who’s traveled the globe for National Geographic and other outlets; Jack Ronald, editor and publisher of The Commercial Review in Portland, Ind.; and Tash, a South Bend native who is chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Company of Tampa.

Three journalists were inducted posthumously: Lowell Mellett of Elwood, Joe Aaron of Evansville and Jerry Lyst of the Indianapolis Star, where he worked as a reporter covering the police beat, government and finance and as head of the editorial pages. Lyst retired in 2000 and died in 2009.

During his award-winning career, Lyst exposed voter fraud, analyzed the collapse of communism, penned columns on the challenges faced by African-American business people and consistently prodded government to be open and accountable to residents.

In some countries, the media have no such power. Ask Jack Ronald, whose commitment to a free press has taken him to 11 emerging democracies, from Belarus to Afghanistan, where he has worked with journalists trying to make the transition from state-censored to free press. One former Soviet country deported him.

Tash is concluding a stint on the Pulitzer Prize Board, which each year selects the best in Americans in journalism for honors. The experience has convinced Tash “there is still a lot of extraordinary work going on in journalism today.”

“The winners of Pulitzer Prizes this year took down Apple, Walmart ... and the government of China,” he said.

Among the Pulitzer winners announced April 15: Two New York Times reporters who uncovered how Walmart bribed Mexican officials to get permission to build stores in their country. Another wrote of a “Red Nobility” in China made up of relatives of top government officials who were making fortunes in businesses tied to the government. The Times staff won the explanatory reporting award for exposing the darker side of business practices of Apple Inc. and other technology companies.

These are the kinds of stories that continue to inspire reporters even as their industry struggles through bankruptcies, drops in circulation and competition from new media forms. In the past five years, newspapers have lost 50 percent of advertising revenues, Tash noted before predicting, “I actually think better days are ahead.”

His forecast is more optimistic than that of CareerCast.com whose survey earlier in the week ranked newspaper reporter lowest out of 200 jobs based on “physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook.”

“A job that has lost its luster dramatically over the past five years is expected to plummet even further by 2020,” the researchers said. The report cited media consultant Paul Gillin’s prediction that newspapers will die out, probably “within the next 10 years.”

The profession has changed, and perhaps the print version will one day be obsolete, but the six new Hall of Famers remind us why journalism remains the noble profession and why we should hope — to paraphrase Mark Twain — that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. This column represents the writer's opinion. Readers can write her at aneal@inpolicy.org or in care of The Times.

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