Good media criticism won't die - even if journalism reviews do

One of the two notable American magazines devoted to criticism of the press is in trouble.

One of the two notable American magazines devoted to criticism of the press is in trouble.

The American Journalism Review (AJR), published by the University of Maryland Foundation, has acknowledged that it may have to close unless its finances improve.

There are many reasons for this situation. One, sad to say, is a grotesque libel lawsuit by a California newspaper owner whose publishing antics the review examined - an owner who has turned a once-fine paper into a product unfit even for fish wrap. I don't doubt that the magazine will prevail, but the expense of defending itself could be extremely high.

But if the AJR, an excellent publication by any standard, ends up in the scrap heap, there will be other reasons, as well. At the top of the list will be the rise of the Internet. Even a modest amount of Web surfing produces a fountain of media criticism.

To be sure, most of what's online doesn't measure up to the carefully reported, written, and edited work you will find in the AJR and Columbia Journalism Review (the other main publication of its type). But it does enough that the need for these magazines has lessened.

This is the niche syndrome at work. Name a topic, and you're likely to find niche sites that cover it deeply - and sometimes better than any print publication, much less broadcast.

The abundance of technology-related coverage on the Web is perhaps the best example. Gadget blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget are spawning competition not just from other blogs, but also from print outlets that want to beef up their own Web coverage.

Ditto politics: Some of the best reporting, not just commentary, is showing up online these days. This was perhaps inevitable given the way the bulk of the Washington press corps has become not much more than a secretarial pool for the people the journalists claim to cover, despite the considerable resources traditional media pour into political coverage.

Given the convergence of politics and media, it's no surprise that some of the best media criticism is about political coverage. The commentary ranges from gentle to withering, trivial to valuable.

Think back to the 2004 CBS News broadcast, grounded in large part on alleged memoranda, about President Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard. The right-wing bloggers who pounced on the story - asking questions about the memos' authenticity that CBS failed to answer in a persuasive way - did a real service in holding the network to account for its inadequate journalism. Only after the firestorm emerged online did the traditional media jump in.

Similarly, the widespread failure of the Washington press corps to ask tough questions during the run-up to the Iraq War drew well-deserved contempt from mostly left-of-center bloggers. The sound reporting by the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, now part of the McClatchy chain, drew deserved praise.

I hope the traditional journalism reviews survive - and thrive. But if they don't, I'm confident I'll be able to find ample coverage of journalism in other venues.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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