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Urban Journalism in Transition: An Interview with Roland De Wolk

by Katia Savchuk

City papers play a vital role in civic life, but they are struggling to survive in a depressed economy and adapt to new technologies. Award-winning journalist and online media pioneer Roland De Wolk recently shared his views on the changing media landscape and what it means for urban coverage.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, De Wolk was a newspaper reporter for 15 years before moving to broadcast and online journalism. He is a senior lecturer in San Francisco State University’s journalism department and co-created its online journalism program, among the nation’s first.

Note: This Q&A is adapted from a phone interview. All sentences are direct quotes, but they have been combined without indicating omitted material.

How has the way that major newspapers report on urban affairs changed over time?

It’s deteriorated. The number of reporters is down significantly. The number of what I would call quality news outlets has shrunk. The kind of people that have gotten into news management has really deteriorated. When you’re working in a monopoly business … there’s no need to be really good. You’ve got people that own these mass media outlets that are used to essentially drug profits. Now they’re not getting those kinds of profits, and they don’t know how to respond to it. They add more work with fewer people, so the quality diminishes.

In the longer term, obviously the shift in demographics has gone from an urban to a suburban population. Since most Americans now live in what we would call the suburbs, the coverage has shifted away from urban America.

When did alternative weeklies come onto the scene, and why? How have they changed the way that urban affairs are reported?

They began in the late sixties. They didn’t really prosper until the dot-com situation. I worked for the [San Francisco] Bay Guardian for a while when I was young, and I find it useless to me because it’s so unreliable. There’s more money in these alternative weeklies, I think, in entertainment listings – the massage adds at the end – than in urban coverage.

When did community newspapers become widespread? What role do they play in the urban media landscape?

They’ve been around forever. Those are usually controlled one way or another, practically every way, by the commercial interests. They’re economically very vulnerable to local parochial interests.

Are mainstream dailies more objective?

Major news outlets are reasonably objective. We’re all human beings.

How has coverage of urban issues by major papers changed over time?

I think there’s been much better transportation coverage in the last 30 years than ever before.

Development and zoning … They’re interested in their own neighborhood. In my neighborhood, there’s an old military hospital [that may be redeveloped]. I want to know what’s going on, but I know somebody who lives a zip code away from me doesn’t really care. But I think it’s gotten better overall.

Crime touches everybody in this country. To say it’s not or shouldn’t be covered necessitates that perspective. On the other hand, I think it’s too easy to cover, and we cover it too much.

Have the types of sources that reporters on the urban beat rely on changed over time? 

Unfortunately not. It’s a deadline-driven business to a large extent. You’re going to call somebody you know who’s smart and articulate and informed and available. And unfortunately, the practicality of that is that it often brings us back to a set cast of characters. We work pretty hard to break free of it, but that clock doesn’t stop for anybody.

You co-created one of the first online journalism programs in the nation. What are the potentials of online journalism?

Incalculable, infinite, awesome, beautiful. I just think it’s the greatest thing since fried spam. We’re in this fascinating zone here where were transitioning from one to the other.

How have major city papers adjusted to online media? 

Poorly, at best. Disastrously actually I would say. They don’t have a clue. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.  The [San Francisco] Chronicle is better at it than the other ones.*

The managers can’t let go. It’s all they know. They’re afraid of anything else. The same thing’s happening in the journalism departments. They’re stuck where they shouldn’t be.

The Chicago Tribune … was the dominant newspaper at the turn of the last century. Radio was just emerging then, so they started a radio station called WGN. You know what it stood for? World’s Greatest Newspaper. It was a promotional tool for the newspaper and it floundered. Instead of just trying to transfer, let’s take these grits and try to turn them into oatmeal.

What do you think of citizen journalism sites?

That’s like going to a citizen’s surgeon. I don’t think it’s journalism. They’re just people with an opinion. It’s a contradiction in terms. I’m an extreme free speech person, and I love the idea that people can go online and write. It ain’t journalism. It’s a highly skilled profession if you do it right, and it takes years, even for the most naturally gifted people, to learn it.

It’s an accelerant on this fire that’s already burning the industry.

What impending changes do you foresee in print and online media that may affect urban coverage?

You have candidates who … refuse to take press questions … because they can essentially buy media spots. Who openly say out loud, “We don’t care about reporters and the news media. They don’t count anymore.” How many people have stopped to realize, outside of the business, what they’re losing when those priceless people who cover politics … business … your local zoning board … they’re gone?

What types of issues are under-reported?

Last week … I went down to Fremont. I don’t see hardly anybody who looks like me. I don’t see hardly anybody who talks like me. I might as well be in India. What story have I done in the last year that these people would be interested in? I can’t think of one. And that freaks me out; it upsets me.

Any insight into being a new American? What it’s like to be 15 instead of 48? Where are those stories? There’s this disconnect because the reporters, the editors, the managers aren’t connected in there … because of economics, because of ethnicity, maybe to some large degree, because of education, because of taste. We’re just out of touch. I think there are huge commercial opportunities to do that.

Where are people getting their news?

They’re not, as far as I can tell. Journalism majors … don’t read the news. They can tell you who Lady Gaga is … but they can’t tell you who the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America is. I’m not blaming the audience for that. We just haven’t produced a product that’s relevant.

There has been a massive sea change in the last generation. I would say in the last 5-10 years. It blows my mind.

*De Wolk later added that the Los Angeles Times had a “decent (if not great) online news site.”

Credits: Photo of Roland De Wolk from rolanddewolk.com.