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More journalists? Or fewer? Who will decide?

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Who’s a journalist? Who will decide? Will bloggers rule the world? Will the First Amendment wither online? Do Big Govmint and Big Corpokleptocracy have motives for seeking to control the answers to these questions?

None of these questions can be considered in isolation. So let’s begin with a case little-noticed by the general public: “Three blogs which published sensitive information about upcoming Apple products could be made to disclose where the leaks came from. A California judge said in a preliminary ruling that bloggers should not have the same protection afforded to journalists under US law.” (Read the story.)

Argue pro or con if you wish. But consider: This ruling limits those who can call themselves journalists and, more important, who can seek protections under state shield laws allowing journalists to conceal their whistle-blowing sources.

Lost in the hue and cry over First Amendment rights to free speech and free press will be a very interesting numbers game.

(Read on at your peril.)

In 1980, America’s population stood at 220 million. The number of daily newspapers serving the public was 1,745 (See the NAA figures.) In those newsrooms worked 43,000 journalists – editors, photographers, copy editors and reporters. (See the ASNE figures.)

Now it’s 2005. The U.S. population stands at 295 million, a 31 percent increase from 1980. The number of dailies has fallen to about 1,450 (NAA’s most recent figure is for 2003 at 1,456), a decline of 20 percent. Newsroom employment has risen — it peaked at 56,400 in 2001 and has dropped 4 percent since. But here’s the breakdown for 2004: 13,000 supervisors, 10,000 copy and layout editors, 25,000 reporters, and nearly 6,000 photographers.

Anyone who has followed the newspaper industry over the past 40 years might be thinking this:

Gosh. Only 25,000 reporters among the 54,200 newsroom employees? There used to be more reporters. But as technology changed, production functions (design, layout) shifted to the newsroom. More copy editors were needed. As the number of reporters declined, less local news was reported and published. Wire copy filled in — meaning more copy editors. Color arrived, and more photographers were needed to provide the pictures that took advantage of color printing.

Bottom line: Today, only 25,000 reporters at about 1,450 newspapers look after the information needs of 295,000,000 people. That’s one reporter per 11,800 people. (By the way, the median circulation of daily newspapers is only about 12,000 paid subscribers.)

Industry mergers and acquisitions have seen the number of newspapers decline — and mergers mean loss of jobs, especially among reporters.

So what? you ask. Why all these numbers?

If you believe that Big Govmint and Big Corpokleptocracy are morally interested in having their operations closely monitored by journalists of any kind, then please give me some of what you’re smokin’.

Examine the actions of government and corporations in terms of whether they reduce or increase the number of journalists that can hold government and corporations accountable for their actions.

Can you see actions that enhance journalists’ ability to accomplish that? Hardly. Or increase the number of journalists? Nope.

A friend asked me to define “journalist.” That’s akin to saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Far greater minds than mine can hold forth on the meaning of professionalism versus craft, the importance of oversight and gatekeeping, and the punctuation in the First Amendment placing freedoms of speech and the press on equal grammatical footing.

But I believe that the Founders had in mind a citizenry that saw an obligation to question its government, to demand that its government be accountable.

That’s what journalists do. In same breath in which we speak of citizen legislators we should utter “citizen journalists.” A blogger or my mother writing a letter to her representative in Congress may have the same motive in mind — holding government, and because corporations can now be considered governments as well, them, too — accountable.

The last 40 years of governmental intransigence in providing information to the citizenry and the corporatization of the press have resulted in fewer journalists acting effectively to hold them accountable.

So that California judge ruling against three blogs can be viewed as evidence that government will ultimately seek to determine, through judicial ruling or legislative fiat, who is a journalist. If Big Govmint seeks to do that, the likelihood it will expand the number of journalists afforded shield law protections is zero. Nada. Not a chance.

That’s not a good sign, folks. More journalists, not fewer, are needed in any and every medium to hold accountable those who seek to control us.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

March 5, 2005 at 4:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. I might get stomped on mightily for saying this, but I feel like that if bloggers had to adhere to the same principles as professional journalists (e.g., fairness, avoidance of bias and libel), then they would deserve the same protections.


    March 5, 2005 at 10:42 pm

    • Opinion writers in papers are allowed to be biased, why cant bloggers?


      March 6, 2005 at 12:29 pm

      • Because opinion writers aren’t writing news, they’re writing opinions. And it usually has “OPINION” or “EDITORIAL” written in big print on the page toppers or underneath their names.


        March 8, 2005 at 6:52 am

      • Bloggers dont pretend to be reporting news. Bloggers are for the most part commentators, as are opinion writers in papers. If such professional journalists have such protections, why shouldnt bloggers?


        March 8, 2005 at 6:55 am

  2. blogger protection
    All the more reason for those who are journalists to hold government feet to the fire. Burn ’em, baby….burn ’em
    Your favorite Christian anarchist


    March 6, 2005 at 1:17 pm

  3. Money Shot…
    Here’s the money shot, Denny:
    “The last 40 years of governmental intransigence in providing information to the citizenry and the corporatization of the press have resulted in fewer journalists acting effectively to hold them accountable.”
    With a judiciary now being filled by persons with every reason to want information withheld and opposing viewpoints silenced, I fear “interesting times” (as referenced in the old Chinese curse) await us.
    Do love that term “citizen journalists.” Hope you don’t mind if I appropriate it – with all due attribution, of course….


    March 6, 2005 at 3:35 pm

  4. Let me start this one by saying this, loud: I am NOT necessarily saying Apple should win this case. And when someone asked me the other day whether bloggers are journalists, the answer was pretty simple: yes. But I’d like to refer anyone interested in this case to the following link: Then open up the March 11 decision on motion for protective order and read it. (It’s just 13 pages.)
    What you will see is far more complex than most of the stories I’ve read on this topic. The judge goes out of his way to say he’s not deciding whether bloggers are entitled to the same rights as journalists. In fact, at one point he says even assuming these are journalists (with one he’s a bit skeptical), he would make the same decision.
    What he is saying breaks down this way: he believes Apple has made a case that the information published falls into the category of trade secrets. As such, Apple is arguing that it’s information that Apple derives economic benefit from as long as it’s not known to the general public; think of the formula for Coke. (You may or may not agree; what I’ve heard about what information was published makes me wonder whether it is indeed a trade secret. But the judge is assuming it may be so.)
    Once he assumes that Apple has gotten that far, he finds the rest easy. California law makes revealing a trade secret a crime. He says he sees no public interest served by publishing information that Apple by law is entitled to keep private. He emphasizes that he would make the same order no matter what medium these writers were working in. I suspect he knew how this decision would be read, since he stresses that he is deciding only whether Apple can pursue the information or not.
    One other point: this is a decision made by what is apparently the California trial court level. Unless California has a twist I’ve not heard, decisions at that level generally do NOT make legal precedent — they can be completely ignored by other courts with no repercussions.
    What am I saying? That this decision doesn’t exactly say bloggers don’t have the same rights as journalists. What is says is that he reads the California shield law as not protecting anyone who publishes trade secrets given to them illegally. Because of the trade secret question, it’s not a terrific decision on which to hang the question of bloggers as journalists. (Don’t bother yelling at me on the subject of trade secrets — that’s not the real issue we’re all supposed to be worrying about.)
    Sooner or later, we’re going to see the legal system try to figure out whether bloggers are journalists, but I think that process is going to be very slow and it will vary state to state. In the meantime, the sky is not yet falling.


    March 23, 2005 at 4:17 am

    • A slightly open door is a wide-open door
      I’ve read the judge’s decision, and I agree with your interpretation of his ruling. But … I see consequences from this. As one wag (I cannot recall whom) said, his ruling is the exception that swallows the rule.
      If the door is opened to this “trade secrets” ruling, then the argument will not be over who’s a journalist. It will be over “what’s a trade secret?”
      Given the propensity of federal judges to side with corporations more often than note, this single ruling remains troublesome as well as indicative of what the future may hold.

      Dr. Denny

      March 23, 2005 at 5:01 pm

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