Journalism, as it is practised in the United States today, is largely the work of technocrats, trained in expensive journalism schools. There is another kind of reporting, that of Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida B. Wells and the old school muckrakers. They were not just fact gatherers, and they hadn’t gone to school to learn their trade; they were journeymen, fellow workers with a passion for making America live up to just the sorts of values we celebrate on Independence Day–values which all too often ring hollow.
Djelloul Marbrook is a poet, fiction writer, and retired newspaper editor (Providence Journal, Baltimore Sun, Winston-Salem Journal, Washington Star). He blogs at djelloulmarbrook.com. Marbrook’s got a plan that frees journalism from the confines of mainstream publications–which in addition to being circumscribed and commercialized, also have no way of paying for themselves, and are dying a slow death.
The concept of citizen journalism is nothing new. But Marbrook brings a new twist to the idea: he wants to harnass “one of our most spectacular natural resources, the aging.” Retired old people have the skills and the time, he says, to “undertake the kind of restlessly inquiring journalism that has been sold out for quick profit.” I’d argue that there’s another advantage, as well– something that happens to some of us when we reach a certain age. We’ve just lived too long to take any more crap, and while we may be creaky and forgetful, our bullshit detectors are keener than they’ve ever been.
Here, then, is Marbrook’s modest proposal for an army of muckraking geezers:
Here we are, a graying nation overlooking what may be one of our most spectacular natural resources, the aging. Instead of imagining what they can do for us, we can’t imagine how to care for them.It has been many years since idealism was a vital force in our newsrooms and the offices of media owners. Idealism has long since been trumped by the next dollar and the one after that. Newsrooms have been shrunk to shells of their former selves.media have dropped, to investigate local, county and state government, to look under all the carpets that now bulge with wrongdoing.
No amount of campaign finance reform or revising the two-party system, as California has just done, will ever be as effective as scrutiny of local government. Only the vigilance of an informed electorate will rescue us from big money and ignorant or reckless candidates. Money, here as everywhere else, is at the root of the problem. The media giants that have gobbled up the local and regional press have decided that it’s too expensive to cover local affairs properly. The people themselves must step into this vacuum, and there is a way to do it.
Among our retirees are the forensic accountants, the financial analysts, the medical people, the conservationists, the scientists—the vast range of talents and disciplines that reflect our society—who could undertake the kind of restlessly inquiring journalism that has been sold out for quick profit.
It is a myth that editors and writers are the only ones who can conduct such inquiries. We don’t need polish as much as we need truth. And remember—any group of retirees is very likely to include a writer or an editor or two, someone who can polish the findings of others, just as rewrite people used to do in newsrooms.
What has changed that might make this idea feasible? The hyper-commercialization of the press, of course, but also the advent of the Internet. And it is precisely this kind of development, this kind of social use of the Internet, that the communications giants are now trying to prevent by bribing legislators into giving them the right to limit access to the Internet by imposed pricing tiers.
We have all read stories about retirees looking for creative ways to express themselves, to challenge themselves. Well, here is a challenge that could actually change the country in a very big way. Never mind the Tea Party with its bags of resentment, here is something positive to do, and it doesn’t depend on ideology. Yes, you will have disagreements with your collaborators, just as news people have always had, and often your opinions will be sorely tested by the facts, but remember that journalism is not about the proof of an idea, it’s about truth. Some notions, some hunches will prove out, some won’t. Some good guys will turn out to be bad guys and some unlikable guys will turn out to be the good guys.
You think your local or county government is corrupt? Do something about it. You can. Gather a group of people, not like-minded ideologues, but skilled people of every persuasion, pick something to look into, and do it, post it on the web and watch the monkeys fall from the trees. Worried about libel? I bet you can find a retired lawyer to vet your posts.
This can be done all around the nation, and what will result is a nation dotted with the kind of feisty local news organizations that we once had before the corporate giants chewed them up and spit them out as trivial mush.
Start anywhere, with whatever interests your group. Make a list and see what excites your colleagues.
Or, if you’re a loner, fine, go it alone.
Think of it—an online newspaper that has guts, that isn’t bribed by its advertisers, that can take pictures, investigate events, and publish hour by hour. It’s a revolution waiting to happen. And it won’t take a huge investment. No bankers, no licenses.You don’t need journalism degrees, you need nerve, verve, will power, and the skills you acquired in long careers, whether in nursing or mechanics or policing or accounting. As many skills are relevant as there are in society, because journalism is about everything.
You don’t need to join another fractious, angry splinter group. You don’t need to picket. You’re stronger, much stronger, than that. You can actually force the politicians and corporations to change by exposing what they’re doing and not doing. And that is exactly why the media are now owned by the corporate giants, so they won’t have to worry about scrutiny.
There are few limits to what you can do. Some of you can write about gardening or astrology while others of you pore through records in town hall or the school administration. Whatever your creative impulse is, there is an outlet for it in a citizen journalism.Remember this: if we do not exercise our right to examine public records, that right will wither, and soon the government—whether local, state or federal—will claim that we don’t have the right. That is why what has befallen local journalism in our country is so disastrous. A right that is not exercised soon vanishes…
What I am saying, as an old-timer and a retired journalist myself, is that you retirees can do it. And, if you find the right business minds among you, you might even be able to create viable business models that will eventually create jobs in journalism. You can do it, I promise you. There is nothing magical about journalism. It’s just dogged work, the will to find out, and a reasonable mastery of the language. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t need credentials. But it needs the high ideals that corporate greed has stomped.