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Patrick Gannon: Good government needs good journalism

RALEIGH — As a former server at an Italian restaurant, I believe everyone should have to wait tables for at least a day in their lives.

That way, when they go out for lunch or dinner, they might understand when their server isn’t perfect or their food isn’t delivered quickly enough.

They might understand that behind the black pants, white shirt and apron is a living, breathing human being.

After working as a journalist for 17 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone should have to report and write an article on a controversial topic at least once in their lives as well.

I’m not writing this to whine or complain or for anyone to feel sorry for journalists. We have chosen our profession.

I’m writing this because the profession we chose is on life support, and people – seemingly even more so in these days of brutal politics in North Carolina and across the country – are kicking us when we’re down. And I’m writing this because a world without professional journalists would be a scary one.

If it weren’t for journalists, Richard Nixon might have served much longer as president. If it weren’t for journalists, Dana Cope, the former head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, might still be siphoning funds from that organization for his own enjoyment. (He’s in prison – projected for release in 2021 – after being convicted of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of association funds for personal expenses).

If it weren’t for journalists, you’d have to believe what comes out of government press shops or rely on partisan organizations or untrained bloggers to decipher it for you. Or you could dig into complex issues yourself.

Yet almost daily, I read about newspapers shutting down or drastically reducing staffs as declining advertising revenue and increased competition decimates the industry. Recently, to cut expenses, two well-respected former colleagues in Wilmington were laid off. Watching seasoned journalists walk out the door because of layoffs or more secure jobs elsewhere is extremely difficult for those who remain.

Bankrate.com ranked “newspaper reporter” the worst job of 2015, ahead of “lumberjack” and “enlisted military personnel.” You might disagree with the rankings, but you get the point.

“Publication schedules and jobs have been cut amid growing online competition and shrinking advertising revenues,” the site notes. “Print journalists also must deal with stiff job competition, stagnant salaries, tight deadlines and unpredictable work schedules.”

I can’t begin to tell you how many potentially scandalous and significant rumors and tips go unreported because news organizations lack the resources to pursue them.

And that isn’t good for the watchdog role that journalists historically have played in American politics.

Yes, sometimes we deserve the bad rap. We are not perfect, just like the server who gets your table or the doctor who performs your operation.

But the vast majority of journalists work hard, attempting to describe without bias very complicated and controversial topics and debates. I would urge all North Carolinians to spend time understanding the complex issues of state and local governments and put themselves in a reporter’s shoes for one day.

Get some perspective. Don’t just nay say. Newspapers were never perfect and never will be, but they do provide an important service to try to keep our leaders honest and our democracy healthy.

And I urge you to realize that behind the reporter’s notebook and inexpensive clothing – most of us can’t afford anything else – is a living, breathing human being.

We ask for your respect – when deserved – and for you to stay informed by supporting the Fourth Estate. We need you as much as good government needs good journalists.

Patrick Gannon is editor of The Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.

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