[A-List] Newspapers' Self-Inflicted Wounds
shimogamo at ashisuto.co.jp
Mon Apr 27 05:43:17 MDT 2009
by David Sirota
Truthdig (March 26 2009)
At Northwestern University in the mid-1990s, the journalism professor
with the most devoted student following was an understated teacher who
said that substantive writing and reporting isn't everything, it's the
only thing. Alternately despondent and sanguine, he reminded me of Grady
from the book Wonder Boys (1995) when he told us that he spent weekends
drinking in his closet and that he corrected papers in green ink because
"green is the color of hope".
Professor Kupetz has since left Northwestern, and journalism is today
running dangerously low on his emerald-hued optimism. Judging by the
fatalistic declarations after this month's collapse of newspapers in
Denver and Seattle, the industry is morosely drinking in its closet,
wondering what went wrong.
Most newspaper postmortems insist that decreased ad revenues brought on
by the Internet and the recession caused journalism's problems, not
self-inflicted wounds. If that was entirely accurate, then readers might
lament newspapers' decline as a loss of must-read content. Instead, Pew
polls find "many Americans wouldn't care a lot if local papers folded".
In light of that, allow me to use these dwindling column inches to float
an alternate hypothesis: While technological and economic forces
certainly battered newspapers, journalism also delivered a one-two punch
to its own jaw.
First, financially strapped newspapers undermined their comparative
advantage by replacing audience-attracting local exclusives with cheaper
national content. Then, the providers of that national content diverted
resources from tough-to-report investigative journalism that builds
loyal readership and into paparazzi-like birdcage liner that
unconvincingly portrays politicians, CEOs and their minions as celebrities.
"In place of comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage, readers
of even the most serious newspapers were offered celebrity and scandal,
humor and light provocation", says journalist-turned-director David
Simon, whose HBO series "The Wire" examined this trend.
The most preventable tragedy was the deterioration of quality. Downsized
local publications were all but forced to rely on more national content,
but that content didn't have to become so vapid.
Beltway scribes didn't have to miss the lies about the Iraq war or the
predictive signs of the Wall Street meltdown. Election correspondents
weren't compelled to devote four times the coverage to the tactical
insignifica of campaigns than to candidates' positions and records, as
the Project for Excellence in Journalism found. Business reporters
didn't need to give corporate spokespeople twice the space in articles
as they did workers and unions, as a Center for American Progress report
documents. National editors weren't obligated to focus on "elevat[ing]
the most banal doings" in the White House to "breaking news", as The New
York Times recently noted.
But that's what happened. Rather than investing in the valuable steel
and concrete of hard reporting, national news outlets began printing the
most worthless kind of commercial paper - rumors, personality profiles
and other such speculative derivatives that consumers could find
elsewhere. News, in short, mimicked finance: Just as Wall Street made
bets on bets with credit default swaps and then watched investors bolt,
print journalism mass-produced gossip about gossip, and now sees its
Can we blame readers? If local news is gone and national news aims to
celebrify Washington, can we really fault Americans for paying attention
to chatter about Hollywood hardbodies rather than about DC's paunchy
I'd say no. If it's a choice between a Filmdrunk.com scoop on Vin
Diesel's latest movie and a local reprint of the Washington Post's A1
cliche on the "hard-charging approach" and dating strategy of mid-level
Obama aide Jim Messina, most of us will (understandably) tune into the
B-movie star, not the bureaucrat - and neither Google nor AIG has
anything to do with that decision. Until the news industry acknowledges
that truth - until it relearns professor Kupetz's lessons - no
rationalization, green ink or private benders will save journalism.
David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover"
(2006) and "The Uprising" (2008). He is a fellow at the Campaign for
America's Future. Find his blog at OpenLeft.com or e-mail him at
ds at davidsirota.com.
(c) 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.
A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer.
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