Sunday, June 21, 2009
Friday, June 19, 2009
An increasingly professionalized, educated, socially aware group of journalists began to change the traditions of America's newsrooms in the 1960s, and generally triumphed in the 1970s. They didn't want newspapers to just report what happened; they wanted to seek out what wasn't being announced. Like journalists always, they were drawn to the new, the different, the interesting, the sometimes bizarre. But they had lived through the era of the civil-rights movement and Vietnam. They had realized that if you just quoted Martin Luther King and "Bull" Conner, you weren't getting the real story.
They saw important work for newspapers to do in making the country confront its own shortcomings, little white lies, institutional prejudices. They saw voices asking "Why not?" and that those voices could be ignored or suppressed -- and saw what happened when they were. They had a heroic vision of journalism, particularly of newspapers and their role -- not just as the tribune of the people, but as helping guide people, and the nation, to a better place. The truth shall set us all free, and we are trained to see the truth.
But there was a problem. Newspapermen were still seen in the popular mind as layabouts, oddballs, idlers, drunks, malcontents who couldn't quite fit into society. Sure, they performed a service, but you wouldn't want your daughter to get near one. They were ink-stained wretches, hacks who worked odd hours and got bottles of Scotch from the mayor at Christmas in return for stories not covered. They worked, as they knew, for commercial businesses that ran puff pieces for major advertisers, kept politicians' DUIs out of the paper, and could be owned by saints like the Binghams or by schemers like William Loeb or bombasts like Gene Pulliam. Exactly how were they to stand as Caesar's wife?
The professionalization of journalism -- and of newspapers -- offered the way. Through ethics codes, training, awards, journalism would make clearer than ever before what it stood for. Newspapers would undergo some structural changes as well. No longer would it be acceptable for a major daily to run liquor ads on the front page, as the Evening Edition of the Boston Globe still did in the mid-1960s. In fact, no longer would ads on the front page or even most section fronts be acceptable -- and increasingly, the newsroom would work to control where ads could appear, though success ebbed and flowed. At many papers, headlines crept down in size, so as not to indicate that we were trying to use the news to sell newspapers. The point was to say: We are not the slaves of commercial interests. The news is more important than an ad for D.H. Holmes Co. Ltd. Thus, when we say, "This is wrong," or, "You must pay attention to this," you will pay attention. We are not laboring in our own self-interest; we are acting from noble motives.
In addition, newspapers would no longer be identified by party. Look at an Ayer's Directory of newspapers from the 1960s and a large number of papers still identified themselves as Republican or Democratic, or at least "Independent-Democratic" or the like. As most towns were reduced to one newspaper, part of this was just good business. But editorial pages and publishers no longer wanted to be seen as carrying water for one party. A professional news-gathering operation would present all views, but make its own judgments. The days of the Los Angeles Times being part of the California Republican Party were done.
From this, American newspapers approached a level of professionalism, of excellence in writing, editing and photography, they had never before seen. Compared to the backbiting British dailies, the opaque ideology of the French and Italian, the uniformity of the Japanese, and the professional but stolid journalism of the German and Swiss -- let alone the party-controlled organs of the communist nations and the often amateurish, though well meant, efforts in the Third World -- America's newspapers stood for what journalism could be.
Newspapers would shine their light, as always, on political corruption. But they now would stand for a renewed sense of social justice. They would show the problems of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. They would make America confront its glass ceilings, its fear of minorities, its social conformity. These were not Republican or Democratic issues as journalists saw them. They were issues of human rights, and both parties should come together on the right side and argue about means but not ends. Newspapers also would write about sports, and advances in health care, and the orchestra, as they always had. But they would no longer concern themselves with the leadership of the garden club, or whether a street was going to be repaved, or whether it sure seemed like a long hot spell.
Those things did not make the country better. They were ephemeral and parochial. Journalists would take the long view, because, how could one not be on the side of social progress? And newspapers would become their testaments, their reports to society on its own health, increasingly less bound to commercial considerations, and more guided by a sense that journalists knew what they were about and the people who employed them did not. And thus, journalism would be something that a college-educated intellectual could devote one's life to, instead of going into social service or law or religion, and know that one was doing one's part to make life better instead of merely chasing ambulances and hanging out with the boys down at the press club.
Which totally makes sense as a position to argue, as long as you accept it as a prism and a position to argue, and not as a reality to which everyone will eventually subscribe when their eyes have been opened.
More to come.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Following up on the previous post, "Mario Looks at the World."
U.S. newspapers are different than their overseas counterparts for many reasons -- the First Amendment, the vast size of the country, its booster-led-and-legislated localism (until the last couple of decades) in retailing, banking, and other advertising areas, and the absence until recently of national newspapers, particularly of the Red Top, Boulevardier, etc. genres found in much of Europe.
This meant that your typical newspaper, in speaking up for the Common Man -- somewhat of a Jeffersonian construct and thus possibly more important in America than elsewhere -- tended to speak up for someone named either John Q. Public or John Q. Taxpayer, usually portrayed with a fedora, a round nose and a bristle mustache, saying, "You can't fight City Hall!" -- except that the newspaper was there to help him look for corruption, mismanagement and the like so that he could get his taxes held down, his property rezoned, or his garbage picked up on time. Oh, and potholes filled.
Apart from reporting in the interests of John Q., the typical newspaper was a grab-bag of press releases, wire stories, human-interest pieces, humorous photos, check-passings, and the like that largely chronicled the official business and middle-class lifestyle of the community. The reporters were often lower-middle-class types who grew up there and found their writing or reporting skill saved them from 30 years on the line at Saginaw Steering Gear. Sometimes they thought John Q. was kind of a boob, but they generally disliked potholes, too, and enjoyed a day at the track just like he did.
Comes then the professionalization of journalism, starting in the early 20th century and building to its crescendo in the post-World War II years, when America was contemplating the professionalization of nearly everything. Then mix this with journalists having been on the right side in the three biggest news stories of the time:
* Watergate, in which, in the end, he was a crook.
* The Vietnam War, which, whether you think it was wrong in the first place or was conducted wrongly because we didn't aim to win, ended up being a fiasco.
* And most important, civil rights, in which the news media, as detailed by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in "The Race Beat," (whoops, got that wrong in the first posting) played a major step in the country's finally living up to its creed.
But ol' John Q. was of two minds on these issues. Nixon resigned and the Democrats briefly won, but people seemed more upset that the president cursed in the Oval Office than that he tried to subvert the law. Vietnam led to Kent State and "My country right or wrong" bumper stickers. And primarily, the press showed the rightness of Dr. King's cause, and people voted for Lester Maddox as governor anyway. The press showed how the police were used as an occupying force, and John Q. elected Frank Rizzo as mayor.
And let's not even mention La Raza or the ERA. From the view in many newsrooms, John Q. just wasn't getting it. He seemed willing to protect his suburban dream at the cost of all of America's cities. When people talked of the need for sex education, he heard "my daughter could get pregnant at 14." (After all, if he had known how to do it at 14, he might have tried to.) It turned out that he didn't really care very much about American petit apartheid, separate motels and drinking fountains and the like; they were legislated away, and nothing much happened. But John Q. did want an orderly universe. He wanted one in which there were some rules, and people who followed them, barring acts of God, generally came out ahead.
He wanted his newspaper to keep fighting for the little guy, as it always had. But increasingly, the newspaper said that the little guy was the black person denied equal housing, the woman wanting to be a police officer, the prisoner jammed into a cell and beaten, the teen demanding an abortion without telling her parents. John Q. didn't see much point in going over and over these points. Equal housing, yeah, but you know what they did to property when they got it; cops needed to tackle 250-pound miscreants, not just read them their rights; prisoners were prisoners, for God's sake; children were children and if their parents were legally responsible for them, how could they not be told? It didn't make sense.
Meanwhile, the streets were unpaved, crime was up, taxes were up, and cars were rusting out in two years; and anyway, where are the divorce listings? I heard the couple down the street split up, but it's hush-hush. But the newspaper doesn't run divorces anymore! Oh, and the woman I work with, her son was dean's list at old State U and her daughter just got married to a guy from New York. Her taffetta gown was just beautiful -- they must have spent a fortune, wonder where they got that type of money? That stuff used to be in the newspaper. What happened?
And further meanwhile, in newsrooms, a growing, professionalized, committed journalistic force -- backed by more money than newsrooms had ever before had, educated in colleges, and often drawn to newspapers far from where they had grown up -- found its own view of the world growing further and further apart from John Q.'s. The answer, clearly, was to educate. "Give light and the people will find their own way!" "Let the people know the facts and the country will be saved!" Such were the mottos that had graced editorial pages. Trained journalists would make sure that the real reality -- not the reality of the era of "Father Knows Best" -- would be presented, and eventually John Q. and his whole family would get it and catch up.
More to come.
Mario Garcia -- certainly the dean of newspaper redesign experts at this point by longevity if nothing else -- had some comments recently on why U.S. newspapers are starting to lag behind the rest of the world in some areas. Whether or not you will agree with Mario, he certainly has the international contacts and context to comment, having redesigned newspapers all over the world.
While noting that U.S. newspapers excel in professionalism, he adds: "American newspaper editors, unlike their European or Asian counterparts, may have a heightened sense of mission. They see their role as that of producing the type of journalism that not only reports, but also exposes and investigates. It is the idea of the journalist as a missionary. ... As a result, editors are extremely protective of what they consider to be 'serious journalism,' and with this comes a negative reaction to anything that, like innovative advertising, could create a notion of compromising editorial values."
Well, you're either with Mario by now, or you're not.
"...Some American newspaper editors have a greater sense of the printed newspaper as king, with online and digital editions being less important.... This belief is more prevalent in U.S. newsrooms than anywhere else in the world." He then quotes a U.S. metro newspaper editor as saying: "American journalists are too often absolutists or even fundamentalists. They regularly defend a form of top-down, tablets-from-the-mountaintop journalism. Any changes either to that approach or even to the surrounding content or the relationship with readers is seen as unacceptable compromise...."
He then goes on to note that papers overseas are more liberal in where they will let advertising be placed, and says focus groups are overused. But you can see the flip side of this coin in the belief that "journalism as we know it must survive" even if no one wants to pay for it or underwrite it. It is our holy mission. The problem is that many readers -- and I do talk to some of them -- think we have been preaching at them for decades, and they really don't like it. They find us haughty, one-sided and arrogant -- and not just because they do or don't watch Fox News. The sort of collapse the newspaper business has had does not come from just the existence of an alternative. People have to actively want to not use your product, because otherwise inertia rules. Many, many people have been alienated from newspapers for some time, in my view.
What I found most interesting was that I have always thought of newspapers in other countries -- not Britain so much as the Continent and South America -- as even more opinionated, polemical, etc. as we are. But I will trust Mario that this is not so. It is in many ways coincidence, but the sense of newspapers not as crusaders -- which goes back to the beginning -- but as missionaries in the sense we know now begins at about the time their circulation started to fall off in relative terms, in the 1960s. And yes, I am an unreconstructed liberal. But more to come.
Monday, June 8, 2009
Last week I posted a comment on the wonderful blog "Fitz & Jen" -- E&P's newspaper-business writers Mark Fitzgerald and Jennifer Saba doing brief daily updates on what passes for the newspaper business these days -- and we had a nice back and forth, but a later posting really gave me pause:
"I can read a summary a reporter writes about some (but not all) of my town's local board meetings. Some of the stories are good, some introduce inaccuracies either by the reporting, typos, or editing. That used to be the only choice you had unless you went to the Town Hall to read a copy of the minutes. Today all minutes are posted on the web within 7 days, and reading them I get more accurate and in-depth information.
"If I want to know what truly happened at a meeting, I don't go looking for a news article, I go to the town website and open up the meeting's minutes. That is a choice I didn't have 5 years ago."
Think about that. If I want to know what happened at a meeting, I don't trust an independent news reporter to tell me. I trust the minutes of the meeting. In other words, I trust the elected officials to tell me what they are doing more than I trust a reporter.
Thirty years ago at my second newspaper, we had a huge fight over doing "phoners" of suburban meetings. The reporters did not want to do them, because they would have to ask the board secretary what happened, and the secretary might lie to them. Or, it might be that 100 people turned out to protest something, and the secretary might say: "There was some comment against the proposal." Unless they were actually there, they did not write a story saying that something happened. Now, it was the immediate post-Watergate era when reporters felt that every town board was hiding an 18-minute gap somewhere. And yes, the minutes are taken by someone who is actually there. But is that the point?
The town where I live doesn't appear to post minutes, so I can't say for sure how useful they would be to me as a resident. But doesn't this strike at the entire concept of news-gathering? Even back in more stenographic days, the reporter was supposed to go and say what of importance happened. The minutes will simply report votes and motions in order.
"If I want to know what truly happened" -- I trust the town government to tell me in its minutes. I don't trust a reporter or a newspaper. And it's not, apparently, because of "liberal bias," though it may be. It may be that the reporter got a person's name wrong, or a fact wrong -- or it may be that the reporter thought this was important and the reader didn't think it was as important -- or it may be that the reporter thought something was unimportant and the reader thought it was --
But this bespeaks a problem greater than whether newspapers are printed, doesn't it? If the reader feels there is no need for the reporter to be there -- I can trust the government to tell me what it did, and presumably if I and my neighbors find from reading the minutes that it did something I don't like, we will go and demand redress -- means that the "press as a check on government" is no longer valued, at least by this reader on this level. And I think we know he speaks for many.
Now, admittedly a local town board is not Congress. Most of its actions are pretty mundane. And I have read some stories on my township board that were incomprehensible, and during our local-local days edited my share of stories in which a planning commission somehow managed to change a property's zoning, or a vote that was reported as 5-2 against turned into a clear the next day because it was 5-2 for. But the level of government was never the point, nor was the competence of the reporter. It was the eye on the public's business. If you don't value that eye, you won't want a newspaper no matter how it is presented.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Charles Apple notes the redesign of the Eugene Register-Guard as part of a swath of redesigns brought on by chopping paper-web size. Well enough; we know that smaller page sizes -- narrower or not as deep -- are not a turnoff to readers as long as we continue to have sectionalization, so that Pop can read sports while Mom reads the comics. (Not a sexist aside; taken from recent comments on page-size reductions at Sarasota.)
But among the goals of the Register-Guard -- and this is not to dump on that paper, which has had a fine reputation over the years -- is:
“All the comics, all the puzzles — they’re going to be in one place. Readers won’t have to wake up and ask ‘Where’s the TV page today?’"
I mean, you know where the TV page is on your digital cable or DirectTV.
And no, that's not a "how can people be so dumb as to use a newspaper TV page" riff. But if in 2009 we're still dealing with putting the comics and the TV pages in the same place every day -- as we always are -- even though since the 1970s we have known that readers want the things they use every day to be in the same place every day, so that they don't have to waste their time trying to find them --
Yes, I know we solve this problem, and then something happens (in good times, we decide to do a tabloid features section two days a week because the new features editor wants to make a mark; in bad times, we no longer have a classified section and so the place where we anchored TV disappears).
But readers really don't understand why we can't solve these sorts of problems, although we can always manage to write about what we want to write about at whatever length we want to write about it.
Also among the goals:
"Tighter editing of wire stories."
Also possibly a goal of every editor of every newspaper since, oh, 1975. Well, good luck, Register-Guard.
Charles also talks about the redesign of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, which has among its goals:
"As we move forward and adapt to the narrower measure, we anticipate a larger focus on short-form storytelling..."
Obviously the Nieman Foundation's decision to suspend its narrative journalism workshop is simply coincidental to this, but the conferences, Nieman notes, "were part of our strategy to establish the Nieman Foundation as a leader in supporting the value of long-form storytelling." The values of newspapers and of high-church 1980s-style Journalism seem to keep moving further apart. Well, good luck as well, Spokesman-Review, unless they've hired a reporting staff that is eager to do short-form storytelling (and yes, some will say that a story really cannot be told in short form).
Our county newspaper, which is now edited from the office of its sister, across-the-river newspaper, has taken the philosophy of "tighter editing of wire stories" to heart. Each issue now has 20 or more national or foreign stories cut down to briefs size, instead of the previous approach, which was based on the "I've got a 20-inch hole around the ads. Where do I have a 20-inch story so I can close this page and move on?" technique.
And you know what? I like it. It gives more room for local stories and for really significant wire stories, while making sure that I don't miss anything. Maybe it is simply Google News in print. Maybe that's why it works. Maybe the Register-Guard will need to staff its desk so that people have time to, and are rewarded for, cutting wire stories down instead of seeing how quickly they can get the wire pages moved through.