Tonight's Match-Up: Good vs. Grim

Monday, June 1, 2009 (All day)

What happens to a society when an institution critical to political transparency finds itself on the ropes, dizzied by competing technologies, and pummeled to the mat by an outdated business model? 

Splayed flat and perhaps down for the count, American urban newspapers no longer hold title as the heavyweights of public accountability. As a result, and depending on their ethics, elected officials who have tracked the staggering hulk of the Los Angeles Times around the civic ring either titter with glee or feel left with one less glove in the fight for good government.

I recently discussed the Times’ dismal condition over cocktails with a former Times reporter, two educators, and a grantmaking executive. The word “frightening” popped up a time or two, as did a shoulder shrug about what might come along to replace the once-feared investigative journalism prized by a prior brand of Times corporate leadership.

I recalled as I pondered the question more, that it does take a certain muckraking personality – protected by a fiercely independent news institution – to shovel dirt and sift out the facts on corruption and malfeasance. Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis in an early day of the last century enjoyed outing bad political actors. They and those who followed had the full-on backing of the newspapers (and magazines) that sponsored and published their work. 

Independence in news organizations may not be dead, but its life blood – fees paid by commercial advertisers – has been draining steadily in the direction of other media outlets, most sharply towards the Internet. It’s been shaken further by an economy still bruised by the one-two sucker punch of bad mortgages and broken banks. Seasoned journalists, too, have been leaping – or getting thrown – out of the ring and into second careers. Three that I know have found livelihoods after distinguished Times careers in nonprofit or public sector communications. I’m glad for the organizations who snapped up their talents, but our civic life comes out poorer in the deal.

So what’s to be done? Shrugging our shoulders and giving into the jitters will clearly get us nowhere. I’m placing a measure of hope in entrepreneurial testing of new ideas worked up by folks with little financial capital, and a large belief in the democratic necessity of independent eyes fixed on public issues and institutions.

Former Daily News publisher Ron Kaye and blogger Eric Richardson – who respectively publish www.OurLA.org and www.blogdowntown.com – have been thinking about community and citizen-driven media in innovative ways. Both have developed fledgling projects at Community Partners. Former Los Angeles Times editor and executive Leo Wolinsky has been thinking about tapping intellectual capital in stable, relatively-independent, and publicly-accountable institutions such as universities. He believes it might be possible to harness their intellectual capital to the marketing, branding, and distribution power of established media outlets.

I think of people like Ron, Eric, and Leo as the trainers; cool-headed and with a larger perspective from their place in the corner, but still in the ring. They know that a spotlight on and occasional hard smack to City Hall’s head has a curious way of staunching civic wounds or staving off public injury altogether. At one time or another, a fighter for good government rises up in us all. What would we do without these wise eyes in our part of the arena? Without that bracing report between rounds on how the other guy keeps ducking our best punches? Without that strong voice to coach, cajole, and compel us to slug back with all our might?