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Archive for October 2005

The road to journalistic hell is paved with blandness

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It appears that Our Mainstream Newspapers are not the only print medium needing a overhaul. Alternative weeklies, one argument goes, aren’t that alternative or opinionated. Both need change — and fast.

In a nice read, Neva Chonin of the San Francisco Chronicle commented on the state of the alternative weekly in the aftermath of the Village Voice/New Times “merger” (see here and here):

A true alternative publication is informed by the politics of dissent, and New Times dissents from nothing. In fact, the company prides itself on never taking a political stance. Ever. If alt-weeklies are watchdogs meant to nip at the heels of the establishment, New Times’ weeklies are un-housebroken puppies, peeing on everything and shredding the furniture because, well, it sure is entertaining.

Compare Chonin’s screed with this from Attytood on the fate of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[M]uch of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities…or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses – named Objectivity and Balance – we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.

We prefer to talk down to the public rather than talk to them. Even at our very best – and there are many, many talented newspaper journalists in America – we are more likely to aim at wooing contest judges than at wooing new readers. And we have a knee-jerk tendency to defend our narrow world of messy ink printed on dead trees, when instead the time is here to redefine who we are and what we do.

We are, and can continue to be, the front-line warriors of information — serving up the most valuable commodity in a media-driven era. But that means we must be the message, not the medium, and so we must adjust to give consumers news in the high-tech ways that they are asking for, not the old-tech way that we are confortable with.

If we don’t change, we will die – and it will be our fault.

I see two problems that I personally have to face because I teach journalism, and, presumably, the students I teach will be charged with fixing these messes.

First, the definition of news has become what readers want. The extent to which journalism continues to do that is the extent to which Western Civilization Sinks Out Of Sight. People still need to know stuff that they may not know they need.

Second, the act of presenting news has become more important than the news itself. No wonder newspapers have become boring. Throw a jazzy layout at the masses and they’ll be happy, it appears.

Journalism is about making judgments. If journalists cede judgment on newsworthiness to others, they cede their relevance as well. That personality that Attytood argues is lost will return when journalism makes harder choices about the content it presents to readers, viewers and browsers. Blandness leads to boredom, and that leads to increasing irrelevance.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 31, 2005 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Are we still “great”?

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What should be the measure of greatness for any nation that calls itself “great”?

This morning President Bush nominated appeals court Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The president spoke of Alito’s family with these words:

And I know he’s thinking about his late father. Samuel Alito Sr. came to this country as a immigrant from Italy in 1914. And his fine family has realized the great promise of our country (emphasis added).

Much as changed about this country since Alito’s father arrived on American shores. Is the “great promise” that drew Alito Sr. to this nation the same “great promise” today?

Perhaps as I approach an age I hardly expected to worry about in my 20s, I increasingly wonder about the measures of “greatness” that apply to this nation. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing the president and other politicians simply pronounce this a “great” nation without being willing to debate the meaning of that platitude.

One such measure is the degree of privacy an individual should expect. Does that fall under “pursuit of happiness”? Is the degree of happiness individuals feel a measure of national greatness?

In the four years since Sept. 11, 2001, the obsessive preoccupation of this nation’s leaders in applying time, treasure and lives to the search for terrorism has, to some degree, compromised this nation’s greatness. The degree of privacy enjoyed by the individual citizen has eroded due to influences such as the Patriot Act, technological crime, technological demographic targeting by business and a Supreme Court willing to let developers take homes.

I’m sure far more competent minds than mine could more adequately address a topic that ought to concern more of us as the 2006 mid-term elections draw closer.

If more people think that nation’s “greatness” is under stress, then perhaps the politicians who fail to focus on the issue ought to be given the electorate’s heave-ho.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 31, 2005 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cahoots, confusion and a lack of disclosure

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If you by chance wonder why the credibility of American newspapers is somewhere south of your waistline, consider:

The lede of an unsigned editorial in the Appeal-Democrat, the Marysville-Yuba paper in California:

One of the smartest things President Bush did to reduce recovery costs in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita was to suspend Davis-Bacon Act rules in the hardest hit states.

And this lede in the Jackson, N.C., Daily News labeled “Our Opinion”:

One of the smartest things President Bush did to reduce recovery costs in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was to suspend Davis-Bacon Act rules in the hardest hit states.

And this lede in the Kinston, N.C., Free Press:

One of the smartest things President Bush did to reduce recovery costs in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was to suspend Davis-Bacon Act rules in the hardest hit states.

Aside from none of these papers fixing the hyphenation error, what do they have in common?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 25, 2005 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Buying the news … literally

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In a $100,000 contract awarded without bidding, a start-up New Jersey weekly will publish “positive” information about the city of Newark.

According to the Star-Ledger, the Newark Weekly News‘ editor argues that “the arrangement is similar to the way large newspapers are paid to print the legal advertisements that municipalities are required by law to publish.”

I suppose I ought to be righteously uppity about this. After all, the Bush administration paid journalists and pseudo-journalists to promote its various policies (remember Armstrong Williams?). Ethicists such as Poynter’s Roy Clark are aghast. Clark told the Star-Ledger, “If you are publishing government propaganda in the guise of neutral, detached reporting, that’s about as unethical as you can get short of putting a hit out on somebody.”

And there’s my problem. Raise your hands, please, if you think readers believe they’re getting “neutral, detached reporting” from their newspapers about their governments — local, regional, state or federal.

In general, the journalists I know and admire are neutral and bring a detached point of view to their work. But the issue isn’t what I think: It’s what readers think.

If readers believe journalism is in cahoots with government to keep citizens from understanding the forces that affect their lot in life, then the Newark Weekly News only made it manifest.

Hell, for $100,000, I might sell out, too.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 24, 2005 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Recent statements from morons …

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… or the signs of the impending collapse of civilization as we know it.

Today’s winner:

I’m betting we’re going to see regular under $2 a gallon again [but] what we have is volatility and the volatility may continue. [emphasis added; story TimesSelect, $$]

— Robert A. Lutz, vice chairman and product development chief of General Motors. The crystal-ball-festooned Lutz was explaining why GM, despite September sales of Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans and GMC Tahoes dropping 50 percent from August, gas prices near or more than $3 a gallon and negative credit watches by the ratings agencies, predicts the big SUV market will perk up again soon.

Today’s runner-up:

Papers are recognizing that advertisers will accept a smaller page size because readers like it. A lot of The Journal’s readers are commuters, and it’s easier to read smaller papers on the train. [emphasis added; story.]

Wall Street Journal newsprint consultant David Allan, focusing on a dumb-ass benefit of shrinking the size of The Journal from 15 to 12 inches wide beginning in 2007. The move will save the paper, its execs say, $18 million a year in newsprint costs. But what additional subscribers will The Journal get in sufficient numbers for advertisers to pony up higher ad rates?

The Journal may be “easier to read,” but it will have about 10 percent less space for news, the NYT reports in the same story. I predict few new subscribers …

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 15, 2005 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

No tears, please; just the news

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“The Anderson Cooper cult of personality must end,” says Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle. I agree.

Goodman’s provocative piece traces the impact of CNN’s Anderson Cooper on news sensibilities at CNN — and the impact of his pairing with Aaron Brown on “NewsNight.” It ain’t pretty.

I’m old school. I’m tired of excessive, sometimes artificial reportorial empathy — often blatantly aimed at gathering ratings or circulation than providing clear, accurate information. As many critics have pointed out, Anderson Cooper wasn’t alone in shedding tears while providing information that turned out to be highly questionable.

I don’t want my reporters crying on the job. (I do think they ought to cry off the job, because too many internalize the pain and suffering they see to their eventual emotional detriment. But no cryin’ on the job.)

Why?

My newsroom godfather told me: “When the rest of the world is losing its head, we’re expected to keep ours.” And who can argue that the world these days hasn’t lost its collective head? Wars, pestilence, disasters, political trickery and treachery, bureaucratic incompetence abound.

Keeping a clear head, to me, distinguishes journalists working at their best. Old school? Sure. Traditionalist? Absolutely. But when you need positively, absolutely need accuracy and clarity, you won’t get it from someone blinded by tears.

Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

October 12, 2005 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized