No alternative

Authentic Journalism Dept.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  October 14, 2009

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“I got very tired of being called an ‘alternative journalist’ for so many years,” says former Phoenix reporter Al Giordano. “Alternative to what? The New York Times? The dying Boston Globe? The Boston Herald? No! Those people and their rags are the alternative to what real journalism is.”

So rather than the “alternative” label, Giordano prefers “authentic.”

Seven years ago, Giordano — renowned for, among other journalistic endeavors, creating Narco News, the pioneering online bulletin that reports on the US war on drugs in Latin America — co-founded the School of Authentic Journalism on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Since then, the school’s enrollment and funding — gleaned entirely from supporters’ small donations — has grown steadily. And this past month, the school announced it will be offering 24 scholarships for “up-and-coming journalists and communicators” to attend a 10-day session there this February.

But what is “authentic journalism” exactly?

“A journalism that doesn’t pander to the interests of the advertisers,” says Giordano. “That doesn’t go out and look for the more upscale readership in order to please those advertisers, but rather serves people — in a way that the people come to believe and to know that the newspaper, or whatever media it is, is part of them and serves their interests.”

Through Narco News and the acclaimed political blog the Field, which he also created, Giordano has steered his own journalistic course. Now, with the media industry in tumult, he’s hoping others will follow his lead.

“A lot of my students have asked me if they should go to Columbia School of Journalism, or Annenberg or Medill or any of those. I say, ‘Are you independently wealthy? Because if you have to go into debt for it, it’s definitely not worth it. And if you’re wealthy and you can afford it, well, then all you’re going to have to do is spend an equal amount of time unlearning all the garbage they teach you there. Like the idea that a journalist should or can be objective. Like there are only two sides of a story.”

Unsurprisingly, Robert Giles, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, isn’t quite ready to pronounce J-school irrelevant. Yes, he concedes, universities like the ones Giordano cites “are very expensive.” But they, too, have “generous student-aid programs and a lot of scholarships.”

Moreover, he argues, “journalism schools today, particularly Columbia, with its second master’s program, are giving students important knowledge about very complex subjects in our society.”

That said, Giles allows that “any place where you can teach people about becoming journalists has value — as long as their standards meet the test.” He remains convinced, however, that “newspapers are still the best” source for thorough and accurate reporting.

Giordano disagrees. “Newspapers — daily newspapers in particular — are not gaining the trust of the public, and they’re losing whatever trust they had,” he says. “There are powerful reasons for that. It’s not that the Internet exists and now they have competition, although that’s part of it. It’s that the Internet has allowed regular, everyday people and authentic journalists to point out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies and dishonesties of what passes for mainstream journalism in the United States.”

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