November 21, 2017

Stop the Presses: Reflecting on Changes in the Information Landscape, Part II | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

What if libraries had to bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of our operations? What if we had to sell advertising and membership subscriptions and keep stockholders happy, even if those stockholders had no particular commitment to our mission, just to profits? Our most cherished values would be compromised daily and we’d be on the ropes: slashing collections and positions, putting a hold on innovation, and focusing all of our efforts on keeping the doors open. In short, we’d probably be where newspapers are today.

A profession in crisis
Every year I have students in an information literacy course read the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. It causes a bit of snickering because so often journalistic failures – the mainstream media’s gullibility about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a taste for sensationalism, and high profile fact-check failures – are, well, in the news, and the public’s attitude toward journalists has been growing more and more negative for the past two decades. Yet there’s an idealism in the code that is inspiring: journalists strive for truth, fairness, even-handed treatment of diverse points of view, and are dedicated to getting information to the people because freedom of information is foundational to democracy. Sound familiar?

But there’s no denying that the news industry is in a state of crisis. The Rocky Mountain News is gone, and the Seattle Post Intelligencer now only exists online. The New York Times is trying to raise money with a lease-buyback of its building and a big investment from a Mexican financier. The Tribune corporation is bankrupt, and several major urban dailies are unable to pay their bills. According to the sixth annual State of the News Media, one in five journalists working in newsrooms in 2001 had their jobs eliminated by 2008, and this year will be worse. Newspapers are in free fall and coping with the immediate crisis is distracting business leaders from thinking about the future. Given the grim news, it comes as a surprise that newspapers overall turned a profit in 2008. What they didn’t turn was the corner. Scrambling to stem the hemorrhage of earnings in what was a high-profit industry is distracting from efforts to develop long-term sustainability.

Similar missions
So what, if anything, does this mean for academic libraries? After all, the scholarly materials we collect are less immediate, more analytical, and presumably more enduring than the first draft of history, which is printed on paper that turns yellow within a couple of weeks. Our students turn to the web for news rather than to the library, and increasingly when professional journalists can’t be on the scene, citizen journalists break the story, as is happening in Iran right now.  

The future for news, many have argued, is digital and dispersed, not print and top-heavy. Some are experimenting with non-profit models for investigative or local reporting when for-profit media have dropped the ball. Whatever it becomes, it will depend on a very different business model.

But how different will it be at its heart? We will still need to have professionals whose passion is finding things out on behalf of the rest of us. We need to have an institution – however it is funded, however its findings are presented to readers – that provides a check on government and corporate power and uncovers the stories we need to hear. In the words of the Code of Ethics, "public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues."

This sounds strangely familiar. The university is devoted to raising questions, debating ideas, seeking understanding, and preserving and advancing our understanding of the world we live in. Academic libraries are all about nurturing inquiry and understanding of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints. Journalists do the same thing, albeit with tighter deadlines.

Retaining ideals
Academic libraries need to be concerned about the current health and the ultimate future of the news because that first draft of history may be rough and may be incomplete, but it’s a record of our times and a public voice for the interests of the people.

I can hear the snickering now. Idealistic, out of touch? Maybe. Full disclosure: my father was a journalist who taught generations of news editors. I grew up having breakfast at a kitchen table so buried in newspapers it was hard to find the butter dish. I have a soft spot for news, even when the industry disappoints me. But even if newspapers today don’t have the confidence of the people and news organizations fail to live up to their code as they go dowsing for dwindling revenue streams, those ideals are still important and worth striving for. And they’re remarkably close to ours.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

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