Why We Need Newspapers

(Originally published on MOLI 6/17/8)

On Sunday, my local newspaper, The Miami Herald, was one of several around the country to run the first installment of “Guantanamo: Beyond the Law,” an intensive, global investigation of the U.S.’s treatment of detainees in military bases since 9/11. The story, written by Tom Lasseter for the chain that owns the Herald, McClatchy, was everything the world desperately needs from the fourth estate: A thoroughly documented, unrelenting prying open of doors the government has done its best to keep shut (frequently by invoking “patriotism”). The series, which continues all week, reveals how many of the detainees had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, how they were often beaten, how some died in custody, and how the accumulation of American atrocities on these people has turned the prison camp at Guantanamo not into a terrorism containing instrument, but a place that breeds terrorists.

Monday, day two of the series, the Herald announced that due to the continuing collapse of the newspaper industry, 17 percent of its staff will be eliminated through buyouts, attrition, or layoffs. McClatchy, in general, is cutting back its payroll by 1,400 employees, or 10 percent.

It’s the best of times, and the worst of times.

The Herald, like many papers, has made a lot of mistakes when it comes to keeping up with changing technology. Case in point: You can’t read articles more than two weeks old on its website, without registering for a special archive service and paying for them. There must be hundreds of articles on, say, Britney Spears in the Herald database, but you will only find the latest news in a Google search of her name. Talk about missed opportunities for easy hits.

The Gitmo investigation, however, shows McClatchy (the nation’s third-largest newspaper chain) making smart use of the web’s multimedia and extended database capabilities. Lasseter interviewed 66 former detainees. You can see many of their pictures in the online version of the story, along with video interviews; handy hyperlinks in the text will take you right to them. There are PDFs of documents used during the investigation, a la the Smoking Gun. There are maps of where detainees are from. And there’s a place to leave comments (though I think this part of the story should have been played up better online).

The investigation, so far at least, is a riveting must-read – and has been the talk of other news outlets. Coming on the heels of last week’s Supreme Court decision overthrowing the illegal detention of many of these prisoners, the timing couldn’t have been better – except for that little layoff announcement.

MOLI View contributing editor Rob Levine has done a great job of repeatedly drawing attention to the tremendous existential crisis facing journalism in this country; so has our colleague Richard Pachter. Normally, I would leave this discussion in their capable digits. But this time, the timing of the Guantanamo series and the layoffs is too egregious – and personal. After spending six great years as the paper’s pop music critic, I left the Herald a year ago, in part because I saw the writing on the wall in terms of the future of print journalism, and had a chance to get some Internet experience under my belt (thank you MOLI!). I have tremendous respect for the journalists I left behind. The Herald is far from perfect, but the newspaper has broken some major stories for the community just in the seven years since I have lived here – perhaps most significantly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning House of Lies series on how developers and politicians were taking off with millions intended for public housing. Another realtor just last week went to jail, thanks to that exposé.

I’m sure Lasseter is not in danger of being laid off right now. In fact, they should just hand the guy a Pulitzer this minute and forget the wait. But I’m also sure some people I know and respect will no longer be keeping an eye on the bad guys – whether in city government or local bands – as the Herald cuts are made manifest in the next month. And that hurts. All of us.


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