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In January 2009, after Bay Area journalism dean David Weir was laid off from the soon-to-be-defunct web startup Predictify, he gave SF Weekly writer Peter Jamison a big-picture assessment of a news business meltdown putting even elite scribes such as himself out of work. Weir is a former Rolling Stone investigative reporter, 7x7 founding editor-in-chief, and cofounder and executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
"We are the eyes and ears of our society," Weir told Jamison. "No matter how difficult times may get, we will be essential — unless, of course, Americans decide it is better to be blind and deaf than informed. I fervently hope that that day never arrives."
Two years later, just as newspaper companies are plotting comebacks via mobile devices and paywalls, Weir has joined a crack team of reporters who plan to investigate the repercussions — and possibilities — inherent in the Bay Area's news business meltdown.
Journalists writing about themselves sometimes evince groans from readers. But I look forward to seeing what Weir and his colleagues produce. The public would benefit from a precise assessment of what has been gained and lost during the upending of Bay Area news reporting.
Even before the 2008-2010 recession, newspapers had been decimated by a loss of classified advertising to sites such as Craigslist, and a migration of ad dollars to cheaper publicity available on the Web. The ongoing recession has continued to kick an industry that was already down.
Bay Area newspaper staff levels declined by 49.4 percent between 2001 and 2010, according to a federally funded report released on April 6. That's significantly worse than the rest of the country, where newsrooms shrank by 36.4 percent.
So far there has been no comprehensive fact-based analysis of what San Francisco and its surrounding counties have lost — or gained — as reporting by old media has disappeared, replaced at least partially by blogs and other websites, as well as nonprofit enterprises such as the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch, and Bay Citizen, a nonprofit reporting team that feeds The New York Times.
Also in that mix is journalism nonprofit SF Public Press, which has placed a pitch on Spot.us — a Web site dedicated to raising money for worthy news-reporting projects — to assess what has been lost: "All told, hundreds of local broadcast, online, and print journalists have been kicked to the curb since 2000, resulting in decades of lost institutional memory and merged coverage of beats — meaning that some communities go without consistent media attention until a crisis breaks."
Other industries, such as music publishing and construction, have been hit at least as hard as the news business. But SF Public Press executive director Michael Stoll said newspapers' decline isn't merely a business story. And "the full effects of the downsizing of the press have yet to be adequately recounted," he said in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, the North Valley Job Training Consortium, a federally funded Sunnyvale nonprofit, will release the final results of a 2000-2011 Bay Area Journalism Census to measure layoffs in the news business. The study will provide fodder for the Public Press report, which as proposed will include eight in-depth articles, infographics, and multimedia presentations on the results of the cutbacks.
Trying to truly explain what's been lost, however, might prove frustrating. Weir acknowledges this may be a futile task. "How do you measure what no longer exists?" he says. "It's like losing diversity in your ecosystem. When you lose a species, you simply lose a species."
Another possible reason to lament journalists losing their jobs: Some are on the street making a mess of old newsgathering ethics.
Andrew Tilin used to be a senior editor at Business 2.0, a Time Inc. magazine that covered the "new economy," until it was shuttered in October 2007. Lacking an employer, Tilin made sport of traditional journalism standards by manufacturing a story about himself. Reporters now covering the Barry Bonds trial are faced with writing about a crime story in which a solid proportion of readers believe no significant crime had been committed. Tilin did these poor hacks one better, inventing an indisputably bogus doping scandal in order to sell books.
Not long after Business 2.0 shut down, Tilin, who has also written for Outside and Rolling Stone, began trolling for book ideas. He pursued rumors that middle-aged amateur athletes were injecting steroids. Getting nowhere, Tilin — who competes in amateur cycling's category for novice veterans — decided to dope himself, despite the core journalistic tenet that you are not supposed to make yourself the story. The result was his new book, The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance-Enhancing Drugs. "During his yearlong odyssey, Tilin is transformed. He becomes stronger, hornier, and aggressive," the publisher's blurb reads. "And all along the way, he tells us what doping is really like — empowering and scary."
Tilin also earned a two-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, despite meager athletic results.
Stranger still: The harshest critic of Tilin's journalistic peccadillos is an ex-dope peddler facing a possible 10-year prison term.
Just as Tilin was hitting the juice, he published a June 2008 article in Outside, "Vanishing Point," profiling confessed doper Joe Papp. The subhead of the story said cyclists want to dope "so badly that even riders without a prayer of winning big still roll with drugs, lies, and mortal danger."