Reporter Claudia Rowe on How Business and Technology Are Changing the News
Not too long ago, people got their news from the daily local paper or the Gray Lady. Today, our news is often provided by talking heads, bloggers and social media. While this shift might not raise many alarms with the general public, veteran social-issues journalist Claudia Rowe believes there’s a cause for concern.
“People have been yapping about ‘infotainment’ for 25 years, but the most extreme enactment of that has been in the last five years, when we’ve seen newspaper after newspaper go down,” says Rowe. It’s become much harder, she says, for people to learn about issues that affect their lives and make informed decisions as citizens.
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What: Claudia Rowe, The New Front Page: 21st Century Journalism and What It Means for You
- March 12, 2013, Lynnwood
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Rowe has written for outlets across the country, most recently for The Seattle Times, Mother Jones and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When the Post-Intelligencer became an online-only publication in 2009 – leaving Seattle with only one print daily – Rowe had to find news ways to continue her journalism career, and in doing so was forced to reexamine the craft itself
Rowe is now a member of Humanities Washington’s 2012-14 Speakers Bureau, through which she travels the state sparking conversation with her talk The New Front Page: 21st Century Journalism and What It Means for You. Her next presentation is Tuesday night (March 12), part of the Hazel Miller Conversations in the Humanities series at Edmonds Community College.
Spark magazine recently talked with Rowe about the changing state of the media and how it might evolve from here.
Humanities Washington: Why should we care about the “death of print?”
Claudia Rowe: I don’t really think it’s the death of print, because print has essentially just migrated online. I think (the problem is) the financial forces that are driving news media now, whether traditional newspapers, online journalism or television, and you can see it most dramatically in print.
Traditional journalism was viewed as, yes, a business, but one that also had a civic role. That sense of mission used to be, at least to some people, at the forefront … . That is flipped, and now it’s very bluntly about business. … That can mean that popular taste has a greater role in dictating what stories are published, things that are perhaps more palatable or easier to report, or highly sensational – entertainment journalism, for instance. Very simply, journalism that’s more difficult to unearth and more difficult for a reader or audience member to process is waning.
Why should we care? Because in this country we do vote. And we are making decisions as voters, based on … slogans with no explanation behind them because we don’t demand explanation and we don’t read it when it’s presented. This makes us, ever easier to manipulate. As a people we are led by mere words or phrases, barely even sound bites.
HW: Do you see a way out of this situation?
Rowe: What I see happening is an increasingly divided society. An ever-smaller number of people willing to educate themselves about policy will go for deeper stories, so they might click on the niche blog … and an increasingly broad swath of the population kind of washing their hands of it and saying, essentially, “Go ahead, make your decisions, we’ll just live with them.”
In terms of a solution, I kind of think that lies largely with the public. Folks, if you like the state of journalism today then I’m just crying in the wilderness saying there’s a problem here. (But) my belief is eventually we’ll get to a critical mass of how long can we be saturated in crap and, as a people, stand up and say, “All right, I want something better.”
HW: For Washingtonians, do you have any recommendations for those niche outlets that do good journalism – for both local and national news?
Rowe: I think it’s spotty, and you do have to put some energy yourself into finding a series of news sources that work for you. … I don’t think that there is one site or publication or station in Washington that is consistently awesome. I think you have to sort of, like when you go to the grocery store, cherry-pick and get a selection of stories and information from a lot of different news sites.
There are attempts to create news sites focused on Olympia to address the fact that there are a fraction of reporters covering the state capital compared to even five years ago. … Investigate West is a nonprofit model focused on investigative, environmental, public-health stories. (Full disclosure: I write for them.) But they’re not going to give you the down and dirty of Seattle City Council. I think that The Stranger gets in there, but they’re unlikely to give you anything on Seattle School District. … The Seattle Times can pull out some great stuff, too. But there is no one place where you’re really going to get a consistent level of coverage on a broad range of topics every day … I think what has happened in Washington is that news has become very fragmented … and thus more obligation put on the audience.
HW: You’ve reported on several social issues, including gangs in Grant County. When you write feature articles on social issues like this, what are you hoping to accomplish.
Rowe: My whole career I’ve been driven by trying to reach the person who thinks he’s not interested. A mom whose kid is involved with gangs – you’ve got her; she’s going to read this story. … The guy who makes $150,000 a year and lives on the East Side, why does he care about gangs in Eastern Washington? I’m always trying to write in a way that brings a problem that seems far away closer and point out why it does matter. … Look, these kids are not going to stay in a faraway land. They’re either going to end up in your prisons and you’re going to pay for them, they’re going to travel to your cities and be on your streets, or in your schools – if they are in school – and you’re paying for them. … It’s very easy to feel isolated from social problems but, in my opinion, that is not living in reality. This is a connected world.
HW: With the availability of information that the Internet gives us, we can choose to read whatever we want. Why should we read something that somebody else said we “should” read or “need” to read?
Rowe: I’m not here to judge anybody’s taste in media. I watch What Not to Wear. I confess to an odd obsession with America’s Next Top Model. What I am saying is, if you care about what is happening in this country, it’s incumbent upon you to educate yourself about it from a broad range of sources. No one source anymore is perfectly trustworthy. You must look at things from many sides.