Thursday, March 19, 2009

Point A, Point B

I recently spent about two hours looking through a fantastic piece on the situation in Mexico done by the Los Angeles Times. It's an incredible collection of text, photos, graphics, and video that encompasses almost a year of dedicated reporting - the kind of thing you can walk away from with the satisfaction of being thoroughly briefed on a given subject matter. Knowing next to nothing before discovering the project (by way of POY), I hold that I'm now one of the better-informed Americans on an issue on our very doorstep.

What's my point? This is what we stand to lose in this era of media upheaval. This was a project on a grand scale, but it didn't come cheap. Salaries of reporters, photographers, designers, developers, editors, bandwidth rates, vehicle rental, fuel, translater and fixer fees, still cameras, video cameras, audio gear, flights, computers, software, health insurance - the list of expenses goes all the way down to notepads and pencils. A project like this is unthinkably expensive, and our nations newspapers are the only media willing and/or capable of footing the bill. And for their trouble? Last time I clicked, a banner ad about losing 29 pounds with dietary supplements that otherwise would have been tacked to a telephone pole outside a strip mall.

The LA Times, along with almost every other major daily metro, is in serious financial trouble. If they go down, who fills the reporting gap? Bloggers have been dancing on the grave of faltering mainstream news organizations for some time now, perhaps so spryly because they're not weighted down by a pocketbook heavy enough to bankroll a project like the above. TV has money flow problems of their own and even if they didn't, it's hard to imagine their audience being interested enough to justify an expense sheet like that of the Mexico piece. In the past they've let newspapers do the legwork and then co-opted the material for their purposes.

Barring a messianic idea that saves the industry, the massive story I've shared will almost certainly be one of the last of its kind, at least for a long while. Instead we'll get a steady diet of what I saw in a USA Today article some time ago. A well-written piece by David Lynch on a small town in Ohio who lost literally half their jobs when DHL packed up late last year was a good start, and certainly deserving of an in-depth photo story on what its like for a family to suddenly find themselves in a town with no future. Perhaps they pick up and move - a modern-day Westward Expansion - a great opportunity for a story. Instead, what do we get?

Photo by Thomas Witte

Lovely. Really captures the despair of the moment, doesn't it? There's no budget for storytelling anymore, so looks like this guy pulls his car over on the way to somewhere else, snaps a quick one, and continues on.

This isn't meant as a cry to preserve the status quo or offer a solution for its salvation, there's plenty of that out there already. I love news, but I love a free market even more. If there truly exists a healthy demand for news (and I think we're about to find out), there will emerge means of satisfying it. It won't be in print, but I'm not wedded to the concept of putting ink on paper, just distributing information. It's just an illustration of where we are and where we're headed. Take it how you will.


Anonymous said...

You make some good points - I see little out there that will have the resources to cover big stories such as these.

Check out this thought piece by Clay Shirky. He argues that this is a revolution and things are being broken faster than solutions can be found. A must read in my book.

One model I see is the "passion projects" that documentary filmmakers pursue. Instead on expecting documentary work to pay for itself, it is subsidized by their commercial work, etc. This isn't a new model, but I think we'll see it become more wide-spread.

katie said...

well said bartel. i'm not sure what will happen - it's damn scary that's for sure...