Alan Lavine Inc.,
From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?
I’m a journalist with 38 years of experience that includes general assignment reporting, feature-writing, magazine writing and editing a national banking publication. I also have had self-syndicated personal finance columns with my husband, Alan Lavine, in several newspapers, and coauthored several books—the latest, “Quick Steps to Financial Stability (Que/Penguin).” Our totally independent news operation is “Alan Lavine Inc.” During my lengthy career, I’ve witnessed the following frightening changes: • Local meeting coverage in newspapers appears to be almost non-existent—at least, based on my own local newspaper. When I was a general assignment reporter in the 1970s, I had a “beat” of a particular city to cover. In addition to covering committee, planning and zoning board meetings of that city, I also covered local meetings in other towns. Upon questioning each agenda item up for discussion, I can remember learning things like one town’s governing body had just hired a nephew of one of its members at a nice salary and an official in charge of a state-funded housing project had prior trouble with the law. Today, there are fewer reporters to cover these types of meetings, and thus, significantly less of this type of media coverage --to the severe detriment of taxpayers. • Among even the most reputable book publishers, the greatest catalyst for a book deal, in many cases is no longer the content of the book, but its sales potential. This is regrettable because in financial books, for example, large companies often promise sales of a certain number of book copies and target the book’s content to promote products they sell. We’ve noticed a number of personal finance books, for example, in which there’s no mention of steep fees charged by the investments hyped. • Students—as high up as graduate level-- are not well-trained enough in schools to know what constitutes reliable information. Nor do they know how to question it. We know this because at least one alarmed professor continues to ask us to address her classes on this subject. • A major deterrent to our efforts at independent journalism: New charges for information levied by government agencies. While we truly appreciate the wealth of public information available on many government web sites, we specifically have been thwarted in our efforts to obtain court case information, important to our columns, due to hefty charges now levied by court systems. What can the government do? 1. Much like disclosures are required on bank accounts, perhaps U.S. web sites can be required to have information, say, under an “about us” tab, explaining who is sponsoring the web site. This can help a viewer establish exactly how trustworthy its information on the web site is apt to be. In conducting my own research for columns and articles, that’s the first tab I seek on a web site. Often, I’ll ignore its information if I’m not 100% clear who’s behind it. 2. Encourage, as part of school courses, education on how to weigh information presented—whether it be on the web, in newspapers, magazines, broadcast news or in books. Students should be told how to evaluate both sides of an issue, and how to ferret out conflicts of interest that may influence information presented. 3. Encourage tax cuts to small businesses and health care reform, so that small businesses like ours can survive and grow! 4. Encourage government agencies and courts to continue to put more official and public information on their web sites. If they must charge for it, perhaps they can be encouraged to waive fees, say, upon receiving an emailed request from a journalist, whose credentials they are able to verify.