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Down for the Count 

Newspapers are hurting, but journalism is still crucial

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The Tucson Citizen — a newspaper that’s been around long enough to have reported on the 1881 shootout at the nearby OK Corral — was gunned down in April, after 140 years in the business as the evening newspaper. The editorial staffs of the Citizen and its rival, the morning Arizona Daily Star, competed for news — reporting on the elegance of humanity struggling under the stressors of sprawl, and writing about the drug war, bad politics, and the good, bad and ugly in the business community.

Another set of eyes gone. A piece of history lost.

A community voice silenced.

The changes in Tucson are personal for me. I got into reporting in Tucson — at the community college newspaper and the daily University of Arizona rag — because of the nature of journalism in a two-daily town, where weeklies and alternative presses thrived.

Citizen editor Jennifer Boice considers the larger ramifi cations of her paper’s demise.

“It’s a loss because what we do makes the Star better, the Star makes us better, and because of that, the community gets better information,” says Boice, who started as a business writer at the Citizen in 1985. “It’s more than the sum of the parts.”

Now consider the one-two knockout of another Arizona newspaper, one that won a Pulitzer Prize in April for investigative stories on Maricopa County’s megalomaniacal Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The East Valley (Mesa) Tribune is gut shot and dead, and dozens of employees are out of work as of last week. The death of that rag serves notice to all the two-bit, mealy mouthed, reprobate politicos, schemers, scammers and thugs that there will be less scrutiny on their dirty dealings. Citizens might think they can fi ght City Hall, but not well without a slew of seasoned journalists leading the charge.

The Tribune’s been around since 1891, and it garnered 2009 Newspaper of the Year in Arizona. Here’s the rub, and no nouvelle social networkingloving, new media-hyping, Internet citizen journalistpromoting hyper-local coverage “reporter” can say otherwise:

Many J-schools emphasize too many courses on “presentation.”

Reporting’s about content, and the tech training can take place on the job.

The digital crap you learn to master in 2009 will be outdated in 2012.

You can’t do journalism in your underwear in front of a computer; good journalists need to get out into the fi eld and spend time with their sources.

Learning about zoning or how city councils work is boring but necessary.

Accuracy and fairness are paramount at a time when reporters with little editorial oversight are posting news updates on the Web.

Look at the work the East Valley Tribune did, some of which will be recognized posthumously: For fi rst place in investigative reporting, “Blood and Money” followed the kidnappings in the Valley involving undocumented workers smuggled across the border.

“Rigged Privilege,” about private school tax credit shenanigans, attracted a national spotlight with the Sidney Hillman Foundation for “socially conscious journalism.”

The East Valley Tribune got a blue ribbon for the online presentation that accompanied the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Reasonable Doubt,’” the indepth look at Sheriff Arpaio’s “suppression sweeps” targeting illegal immigrants.

It’s a scary time in the U.S. newspaper industry, with more than 29,000 layoffs and buyouts since 2008. Last year, graduates of journalism and mass-communication programs landed fewer job interviews and offers than in 2007. Full-time employment is at its lowest point since 1986.

But there is that sense of hope, though, in those who want to write and become journalists as enrollment in undergrad programs is up 35 percent over the past decade — 201,477 total.

You can see the enthusiasm at Spokane Falls Community College as the student newspaper, The Communicator Online, two weeks ago landed the Associated Collegiate Press Online Pacemaker award. The hard-copy version left Austin, Texas, with a fourth place in Best of Show. A podcast entry took fourth against much larger schools.

This generation of students is seeing the writing on the wall in the business, with the failure of print newspapers. Multimedia storytelling, Web publishing and learning to master digital video, audio and photo equipment are methods that help schools get student journalists into those neighborhoods where the newspapers have been shut down and other media only show up when yellow police tape demarcates the stories.

Burning up shoe leather is the key to this urban “hyper-local” reporting. Thinking asymmetrically about the job market helps fl edgling journalists tackle both a weak economy and greedy media groups ready to shutter newsrooms if the profi t margin doesn’t start at 8 percent.

Newspapers like The Inlander fi ll some of the gap with 10 fulltime journalists and 20 freelancers writing in any three-month period.

Yeah, the revolution — fi ghting global warming, turning the tables on Wall Street billionaire riffraff and outing the princes of torture — will not be televised, and it probably won’t be fl ipped on an iPhone, but “we gotta work with what we got” to use the parlance of rap.

Blogging, Twittering and on-line publishing might not be where the money is, but the tools gained and critical thinking skills learned in a good J-school apply to many career fi elds, and that’s what this new crop of journalism students is looking for — ways to maximize organization skills, research experience and storytelling on all fronts of the technical smorgasbord.

Paul K. Haeder teaches English at Spokane Falls Community College.

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