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The press isn’t providing what the public desperately needs — news that matters

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The daily print journalism I know and love is breathing its last gasps. The craft I practiced for 20 years, and have taught for another 20 years, is limping toward the grave. The newsroom values I have believed in for close to half a century face burial under a morass of corporate arrogance, a flawed business model, and a digital “content” that caters to our shallowest instincts instead of lifting us toward wisdom.

I don’t read as much news as I used to in the nation’s dailies anymore — either in print or online. Nor do I get much authentic news I need from local and cable TV. That’s not the same as saying I don’t get much news — as defined by the bastardized news judgments of managers of dailies and TV — from those sources. Surveys show we get something passing as “news” from those media.

But do we get the news — or sufficient explanation or interpretation of issues and events — we sorely need? Remember, much of what we receive via media, especially mainstream media, is secondhand. We need far more credible news about events we cannot or do not experience firsthand. “Our experiences are shaped by ready-made interpretations,” wrote sociologist C. Wright Mills in the ’50s. (See his “second-hand world” warning.) So we depend on journalism to convey events and issues to us secondhand. But we need clearer, more cogent interpretations than the press provides these days.

We know the quality of the news delivered to us by dailies has declined. But because of that decline, we must consider what we actually need, how we should get it, and who should provide it. As a journalism professor, I have to reconsider what my students ought to do with the skills and values I offer them.

In the early ’80s, the United States had almost 1,700. Now? Fewer than 1,400. Those remaining print fewer papers. Circulation a quarter century ago stood at more than 65 million; now it’s less than 45 million. This in a nation of more than 245 million people over age 15. (See Pew’s State of the Media newspapers by the numbers.)

Today’s news product… sucks

The writing and reporting isn’t what it once was. Sure, the newspaper business employs some excellent journalists. They win prizes for their good work. But the quality is sinking. After all, in the past eight years daily newspapers have shed nearly half of their newsroom staffs — and the first to go were veteran, experienced reporters. Left were more of the young in whom bad habits took root, enforced by the imperious hit mania of digital media.

So, print media execs, don’t tell me authentic news is to expensive to produce. You squandered your lead to digital, ignored it as a credible competitor for too long, lost your ad revenue, and whacked the jobs of about half the people who actually produce your product. You royally screwed up a good gig.

The news in print dailies just isn’t done as well and as often these days as in the past. Print journalism just doesn’t do it for us any more. Yes, I know — newspapers companies have “news” websites. We could go there, I suppose. But who are the reporters writing for? You and me? Or the editors and publishers who want to see clicks and more clicks on stories? Clicks mean eyeballs, and eyeballs mean advertising revenue, which the news industry sorely needs. But the newspaper industry’s managers have largely abandoned journalism as a calling and replaced it with “content” as lowest common denominator for the masses. They assume we only react, that we no longer have the capacity to think.

Pumping up hits on stories has supplanted journalistic judgment in deciding the nature of news on the web. Content, too often masquerading as “news,” merely diverts or distracts our attention from the meaningful. Such “news” treats readers and viewers as shallow-minded and desirous only of being ignorant of the serious.

To quote my favorite fictional president, Andrew Shepherd: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” But I no longer see as much serious effort by the American press in addressing the various ills that beset this country, ills that Congress continually fails to confront. The accountability function of the press has far less bite these days, and politicians know it. The press has become balkanized, and politicians know they can use their own media machines to bypass journalists.

Even that “content” currently delivered to us, especially online, must be treated with caution. The news media make too many errors related solely to speed, which has replaced caution and the ethic of getting it right. So today’s news ain’t yesterday’s news, and we’re the poorer for it.

No more cojones

The daily print press has lost its mojo, argues David Zurawik, the media critic for The Baltimore Sun. Appearing on Howie Kurtz’s “MediaBuzz” recently, he said:

[W]e’ve been battered by so many forces, technology, economics, all of — lifestyle, all the things we know about. I think we’ve lost our sense of purpose. Our sense of high purpose sort of serving democracy and we’ve lost our nerve and our confidence, which is even more troubling to us, and we’ve let the technology overtake us. When around a big story, especially on cable TV there are 10,000 errors and nobody apologizes for them. We just move on. … [T]here is no sense of consequences for it anymore. I remember being on this show with somebody runs a journalism school said well, it’s the fog of war, we can’t really be responsible. We just move on. My head exploded. No, we do have to have consequences for this, but we don’t anymore. We don’t have a sense of shame …

So we’ve moved on to other media for our fix of what passes as news. Twitter is big for news junkies. But, as Kurtz replied to Zurawik, there’s no haven there for good journalism:

Twitter has made this worse because there’s now a whole long list of examples of journalists who tweet first, ask questions later and either get suspended, lose their jobs or have to apologize for it. Not just getting something wrong, but insulting other people … [emphasis added]

The news offered by traditional print news organizations will not improve any time soon. Newsroom layoffs continue. But the corporate-speak that accompanies those layoffs is more than worrisome — it is bullshit. After whacking several dozen jobs, half in the newsroom, here’s what Gannett said as the corporation makes its “digital first Great Leap Forward:”

USA TODAY is working to align its staffing levels to meet current market conditions. The actions taken today will allow USA TODAY to reinvest in the business to ensure the continued success of its digital transformation.

Say what? That same gibberish has emerged from the mouth of every publisher who has cut newsroom jobs since 2007. That corporate-speak is infused from an industry group as well. The American Press Institute, an organization primarily focused on the interests of publishers, says in its “about us” page:

We have begun working closely with local news publishers to help them transform their news product based on a data-driven analysis of both their content and their audiences. We use custom-built content analysis software and deep audience research to help them rethink their editorial strategy and build their brand around tent-pole areas of coverage. The program is designed to help publishers improve their news coverage, build community support and rally internal morale.

Huh? If the new, supposedly improved print and digital world for community papers relies so much on data exploitation instead of the experience of a journalist of 20 years’ experience in a community, the future of community news looks just plain awful.

Divestiture is replacing investment in news

Media corporations no longer wish to invest in improving their print products or their digital operations. Instead, they have chosen to toss them into the low-revenue ghetto.

Newspapers don’t make enough money for Gannett. So it will do what the Tribune Co. did with its revenue-challenged newspapers — spin them off into a separate company. The Tribune Co. remains essentially a television company, because TV stations make oodles of money. Gannett will do the same.

Too much has been too wrong for too long in this country. Undeclared wars that never seem to end. Infrastructure crumbing and killing people. The control of politics by billionaires. An economy that has been an embarrassment created by the selfishness and greed of the few at the expense of the many.

The artificial and inept news stories masquerading as objectivity serve none of us well in understanding all these issues in their full context. Newspapers (and they’re better than cable news) offer too many “he-said, she-said” stories. Too many one-source stories. Too much “false equivalence.” Too many “sources told me” stories. This summer, an ESPN reporter actually began a breathlessly intoned report like this: “I just spoke with a friend of Melo’s …” Really? Who was the friend? What was his or her relationship with NBA forward Carmelo Anthony? Why was the friend granted anonymity? That kind of reporting pervades today’s journalism — and too few of us protest this slipshod, careless, mindless attitude subverting an honorable craft.

What should we want now?

The newsroom traits I learned as a working journalist in the ’70s and ’80s — fairness, balance, comprehensiveness, objectivity — retain their value for me. But, as I approach senility, objectivity as practiced today has become a sinecure behind which newsroom managers hide. (And don’t tell me reporters are doing too many stories under onerous deadlines because too few reporters exist these days to carry the load. That excuse has lost currency.)

Even though I argued four years ago that objectivity ought to be replaced in news environments with subjectivity, I think I’ve concluded I was … well … paying the concept lip service.

But now? S&R founder and publisher and my former teaching colleague Sam Smith tried to persuade me 10 years ago support a master’s program in interpretative journalism. In 2007 he wrote an extensive, four-part special report highlighting “Education for the next generation of journalism.” He saw years ago the future we’re now living in as consumers of “news.”

It seemed to me that not only was legacy journalism doomed, but that it was going to be replaced by whatever we choose to call the world of blogging, citizen J, advocacy reporting, etc. (I still haven’t come up with what I think is a perfect term – it’s like New Journalism in its best moments, but that term doesn’t quite capture the full field of practices. More on terminology later.) And since this brave world of new reporters come to the table with lots of attitude, tremendous technological capacity, and precious little grounding in the fundamentals of good journalism, our information landscape seems fated to be more noise and less signal.

The stakes are too high to let this happen. The truth is that while reporting might become less “objective,” there’s no reason at all why more “subjective” approaches can’t do a good job serving our culture’s need for dependable information and analysis. A blogger who has studied the principles of news gathering, who has taken the time to understand how to vet the claims of scientific and social research, and who has cultivated a clearly stated code of ethics is bound to be of greater value to his or her readers than one who hasn’t.

I’m late to the party, Sam, but I’ll show up. I’ll continue to teach my sophomores the fundamentals of objective reporting, because that’s a useful set of skills: observe closely, record carefully, analyze thoughtfully, organize compellingly, present faithfully.

I’ll tell them a principal difference between an objective journalist and an interpretative journalist is one of sound subjective judgment. It is the ability to tell readers and viewers what they need to know and the honest intent to tell them what it means at a depth greater than too many journalists are allowed to offer today.

I’ll tell them there’s a fine line between a skilled journalist and those who are advocates and activists. I’ll tell them I’d like to see more of the latter. And soon rather than later.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 15, 2014 at 8:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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