Letters from the Editors Column

The Forest or the Trees: the Journalist’s Dilemma

Certainly, it is important that we have journalists covering big stories like wars, presidential elections, parliamentary affairs, and other national-level issues over local town halls, community center events, and yes – student politics. It’s natural to be attracted to the big picture rather than get bogged down with the details, so that we don’t “miss the forest for the trees”, as they say.

by Neva Newcombe

In a world where wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few and the powerful, the task of keeping journalism free from corporate and state influence is only getting more difficult. 

Although the internet has democratized the spread of information in many ways, it has also fostered an ecosystem of advertising that favors big publications. For example: the New York Times is a gargantuan platform of 6.5 million subscribers, which has allowed them to pull in $79.3 million of revenue from ads and subscriptions in the second quarter of 2020, and that will in turn allow the paper to grow its platform even more. It is an upward spiral.

Publications like The Graduate Press are existentially threatened by this ecosystem, as are specialized or issue-specific publications like The Skanner, which covers black issues in the American northwest, or Nor Haratch, the newspaper serving Armenian diasporic communities in France. For small, independent publications, advertising is not a real alternative due to our small audience and relatively low traffic. This ultimately leaves readers to look for other news sources like the New York Times, and drives journalists to generate clickbait for more views.

In the grand scheme of things, one might think of this as a minor issue; afterall, wouldn’t we want to focus our support on publications that cater to a broader audience? Certainly, it is important that we have journalists covering big stories like wars, presidential elections, parliamentary affairs, and other national-level issues over local town halls, community center events, and yes – student politics. It’s natural to be attracted to the big picture rather than get bogged down with the details, so that we don’t “miss the forest for the trees”, as they say.

The problem is that small communities desperately need coverage too– more than that, they need oversight. Once upon a time, this was one of the roles independent news organizations served in society. Now, small-town newspapers and issue-specific publications struggle to stay afloat while their readers migrate to the BBC and Al Jazeera. 

Because of this, they’ve collapsed. While all eyes are on Washington, London, and Dubai, corruption has been able to run rampant down the block. Municipal governments have perhaps an even greater effect on our daily lives than federal ones, but the army of independent journalists that used to keep local governments accountable is diminishing faster than ever.

What can be done? In many ways, this dynamic is a feature of the system’s design. Free market competition tends toward monopoly. Unfortunately no single publication can cover all the world’s beats; it takes a village. However, there are some steps that governments can take. For example, national governments can limit large media mergers, or they can allocate federal dollars to an unconditioned independent journalism fund. None of these solutions will solve the central issue of an advertisement-driven approach, but they may stave off the consequences for a while. 

Today, we have become fixated on world news to the point where it often consumes our lives, our conversations, and even our voting behaviors. It is important for us to consider what stories are truly relevant to us as individuals. This means recognizing that a conversation between the United States President and one of his advisors will likely have a miniscule impact on one’s life, as compared to an administrative decision made by the Graduate Institute. 

While one would want their decisions to be informed by both of those stories, given today’s media environment, we know that we will probably only read one of them, and miss the trees themselves for the forest.


This piece was originally published on the Graduate Institute website.

Letters from the Editors is a rotating column, written by The Graduate Press Editorial Board. It is meant to serve as a platform to discuss regional, personal, and political issues surrounding the role of a journalism in their respective societies.

Photo by Markus Spiske on rawpixel.

1 comment on “The Forest or the Trees: the Journalist’s Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Who writes the first draft of history? – The Graduate Press

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