Inquirer commentary editor Timpane speaks on the fourth estate

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

John Timpane, the commentary editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, spoke yesterday on the duties of journalists and the future of news media, particularly newspapers.

Timpane proposed that there is always a place for good journalists, “because we are fighting a battle against the official story” promoted by “packagers of information.” The public has a right to know the truth, he said, and the newspaper is a “running argument that an engaged and informed life” is better than living in ignorance, and gives citizens a direct stake in issues larger than their own lives, rather than just passively accepting the story fed to them by the government, businesses, non-profits, and other “packagers” of news.

Timpane argued that good journalists should be skeptical rather than cynical, always questioning the powers that be, demanding proof and evidence, and never accepting the “official” story without inquiry. In this, he said, local reporting is the hardest kind to perform correctly, because of the scarcity of sources. “Reporters are universally hated because their job is to get the facts” without the spin, he said, but are essential to a democracy.

Journalism, he emphasized, does not necessarily have to happen on the pages of a newspaper. Newspapers are losing readership steadily, but remain a “huge brain trust” and still obtain most scoops before cable news. Blogs, he said, rarely scoop anything at all. “I love blogs, but blogs aren’t news [reporters], they’re opinionators,” he said. Most blogs post news from newspapers’ websites and then add their own commentary, he said, refering to bloggers as the “pajamerati.”

The true future of journalism, he argued, will be on the Internet, but not on blogs. More people are making money as writers than ever before, as there are “more things to talk about” that demand reporters with expertise in science, policy, or other issues.

Timpane published his first piece in a magazine at the age of 16 on the subject of young voters. During his early years of freelancing, he said that he often learned more from a personal rejection letter than from a check in the mail, which sometimes came without even a notice that his story had been run. Work like this, he said, is the journalistic work of the future.

Yet the internet media is plagued with revenue problems. Timpane said that the New York Times loses money on its website, as it sells fewer papers when all of its news is available for free online. Their recent plan to charge for access to certain portions of their website is too little, too late. They key to making money online, he said, is to provide something that the reader can’t get anywhere else.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is working on a news blog, to be unveiled in January. Another example is the Wall Street Journal, which charges for all online access. Though they sacrifice their role in the internet dialogue of ideas, for them making money is the only important thing. This business model could be applied locally, Timpane said, by creating very localized websites that created a need for local information not available anywhere else.

Timpane then took questions from the good-sized Scheuer Room audience on subjects ranging from fear and media to Jon Stewart.

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