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From AJR,   February/March 2007

Journalism That Matters   

Online Exclusive » Resources and commitment are crucial if we're going to have work like the Washington Post's excellent Walter Reed exposé in the future. And that's true regardless of the platform. Posted Feb. 22, 2007

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

This is a daunting time for newspapers and the people who work for them, as you may have noticed.

You know the depressing litany: the sliding circulation, the defection of advertising to the Internet, the endless string of layoffs and buyouts, the shuttered foreign bureaus, the ownership shuffle.

Some take solace in the notion that dinosaurs walked the earth for quite a long time. But it's important to remember that ultimately they did go away.

Even the guy who runs the New York Times – wisely--is getting his company ready for a future without ink-on-paper.

But every now and then something happens that reminds us why newspapers, and journalism itself, are so special.

The Washington Post's series on the hideous conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is one of those moments.

Two terrific reporters, Dana Priest and Anne Hull, documented a two-pronged nightmare in devastating detail. The portrait of maimed Iraq veterans living in slum-like conditions and confronting a heartless and clueless bureaucracy was a devastating indictment of the government that had sent them off to war.

Officials quickly entered a plea of nolo contendere and vowed to make things right.

This is journalism at its finest, intrepid gumshoe reporting. Not leaks from self-serving insider sources, but lots of first-hand observation and relentless interviewing and hard work.

To do this kind of journalism takes talent and commitment. But it takes something else: It takes time. And that's what makes the steady decimation of America's news staffs so troubling.

As the newsroom roster shrinks, enterprise reporting is the first casualty. Priest and Hull each spent more than four months on this story. There's not much room for that in a byline count world.

There's no doubt that this is a challenging time for the news business. Readers and advertising are gravitating online. But we're nowhere near an economic model in which the online news product can finance a large newsgathering force as well as generate the massive profits so dear to Wall Street's heart.

Which leads to a wrenching dilemma: News organizations clearly need to build up their online offerings, big-time. But if they bleed the old-school core product in the process, that can cause problems both editorial and economic.

Robert Allbritton, who launched the much-ballyhooed Politico, made an interesting point when explaining why he was starting up a newspaper as well as a Web operation. The Internet, he told Kathy Kiely for her piece in AJR, is "the future." He added, "It's not here yet."

The key issue is not, as they say, the platform. It's the journalism. There's no reason why the Walter Reed exposé had to run on paper. True confession: I read most of it online.

What matters is that however the field evolves, however the news is delivered, there are the resources and the will to do the kind of journalism that makes a difference.