David Cay Johnston in a Newspaper Death Watch interview

David Cay Johnston

We don’t get a lot of e-mail from Pulitzer Prize winners, so we were pleased and intrigued when David Cay Johnston sent a lengthy response to our recent comments on the shortcomings of American journalism schools. Johnston is a reporter’s reporter in the classic mold of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

In his career, Johnston has certainly done plenty of afflicting. Starting with a staff writer job at the San Jose Mercury in 1968, he progressed through reporting positions at the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer before landing at The New York Times, where he reported on economics and tax issues until his retirement in 2008. He was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting “for his penetrating and enterprising reporting that exposed loopholes and inequities in the US tax code, which was instrumental in bringing about reforms,” according to his Wikipedia bio.  He was also a finalist for the prize in 2000 and 2003. Today, he writes, teachers and consults.

You can read much more about his accomplishments in the biography accompanying his book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill). It’s one of three bestsellers he has authored, a list that also includes Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else and Temples of Chance: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business.

Although Johnston considers himself to be an optimist, he’s anything but cheerful about the state of American journalism and its culture of celebrity-mongering, lightweight lifestyle pieces and regurgitation of factoids spoon-fed to junior reporters by executives and government officials.

“Young journalists need to learn techniques for getting people to open up and especially to check, cross-check and re-cross-check facts; they need to learn how to mine documents which J schools do a lousy job of teaching; they need to become adept at numbers, which goes virtually untaught; they need to learn the underlying principles of whatever issue they cover,” he commented in his e-mail to us. “Use your independent judgment and you stop letting sources tell you what is news.”

This 24-minute audio interview covers the decline of investigative reporting, hopeful signs from early philanthropy-backed experiments and the passive culture of many American newsrooms that has contributed to a dumbing-down of content. “I’ve discouraged a lot of young people from going into journalism,” he told us. But he also noted that if you can make a living in the field, “It’s fun, there’s a lot of freedom and a cachet to it.”

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 at 12:13 pm and is filed under BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Local news, Newspapers, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

6 Comments

  1. March 5, 2010 @ 11:35 am



    […] Johnston on Journalism’s Future | Newspaper Death Watch 5 mars 2010 http://www.newspaperdeathwatch.com/johnston-on-journalisms-future.html […]

  2. March 8, 2010 @ 9:01 am



    Though I am loath to state this as the cause for the decline of the American civilization, an event which will be played out over the coming generation and hopefully not be completed before I have shuffled off this mortal coil, the trouble in and with the United States started with the creation of the super rich.

    It started when we stopped “afflicting the comfortable” at the expense of “comforting the afflicted”.

    This generational change began with the movie speech by Gordon Gekko. “Greed is good”

    Some children actually believed it and then grew up still believing it, until they stuck us with the trillion dollar tab.

    They are still wandering around the echo chamber listening to themselves justifying the fact that they have a new yacht versus health care for everyone else. Since they hear no dissenting voices, they actually believe it.

    The decline of the United States is now set in an irrevocable course where the few extremely rich individuals, now joined by their corporations, will begin sucking up the wealth left in the country.

    Like the ebb of water on a beach where a tsunami is about to come crashing in, they will wander out, use the army to stake out all of the new beach front property, parcel it off and sell it to whatever nearsighted suckers are out there and watch it all get smashed when the wave rolls in.

    Meanwhile, they will have bought all of the remaining mountain scapes. (Don’t worry about them buying up Yosemite. Its on a volcanic magma chamber and they are all to well aware of what those do: blow up like Mt St. Helens.)

    Posted by msbpodcast
  3. March 8, 2010 @ 12:04 pm



    Interesting thoughts by msbpodcast. One factor in the decline of journalism could be that at one time journalists were made up of the working and blue-collar classes. They easily identified with average readers. Now many journalists are from the Ivy league classes. As a result, the “afflicting the comfortable” isn’t as big a priority.

  4. March 8, 2010 @ 1:13 pm



    George: I think David made exactly your point in the interview. He says journalists have increasingly become divorced from the people they cover.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  5. March 10, 2010 @ 10:19 am



    I am a journalism major, and nearing graduation scares me. I’ve started to lose track of the reasons why I want to be a writer. Some of the above has confirmed that maybe I have chosen the wrong field of study. In a couple years I will probably have to go back to school to keep up with the “new future journalism.”
    If journalism can go back to being actual reporting, I think there might be a chance for me. But until then I will have to have a back-up plan. Like it said, “But he also noted that if you can make a living in the field, ‘It’s fun, there’s a lot of freedom and a cachet to it.”
    So fingers crossed, hopefully some change will happen and journalists will get a good name and maybe I can even make it in this world as a good journalist.

    Posted by Jstocker
  6. March 11, 2010 @ 11:14 am



    […] PARA OUVIR com muita atenção: Johnston on Journalism’s Future. […]