October 06, 2003

No More Whining

I'm sorry. I empathize with retired newsman Barry Hartman, who rants in the Denver Post about how the "corporate bean-counters" are bleeding newspapers dry, but he's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.

It's time to drive a stake through this excuse, quit the whining and deal with the real problem - atrophied newsroom cultures that discourage innovation, don't reward risk-taking and drive out many of the best and brightest younger journalists, all of whom entered the profession aware of the paltry pay scale, with rigid hierarchies.

Hartman is right about many things -- newspapers are lousy at service and corporate margins are too high -- but good journalism doesn't depend on on-time delivery or a thinner bottom-line.

Sure, newsroom budgets have been cut - but so have those of most companies in America. More people don't necessarily mean better journalism. The winner of the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news reporting went to the 52,800-circulation Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., for its coverage of four boys who drowned in a local river not to 236,000-circulation the Baltimore Sun or the 230,000-circulation Seattle Times, which were finalists for their reporting on the Washington-Maryland sniper story.

Perhaps the Eagle-Tribune's success derives from the attitude of its staff, whose members pulled the story together on a Saturday afternoon (a time, newspaper veterans know, when newsroom responsiveness can border on the somnolent). Said one editor after the papers was awarded the Pulitzer: "I hope we told the story right, that we told the whole story. That we told what their legacy was."

Perhaps the staff's can-do journalism is passed down by the Eagle-Tribune's editor, Bill Ketter, who as ASNE president in 1996 "urged editors to get off their duffs and delve into the world where their readers live. That, Ketter said, is far more beneficial than simply studying readership surveys. Ketter, vice president and editor of the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., suggested editors get themselves to coffee shops, malls and day-care centers to better understand their readers."

Perhaps, you're thinking, that the Eagle-Tribune's Pulitzer was just a fluke, a lucky, one-time win of an award typically given to so-called "better-staffed" newsrooms.

Maybe so, but even if the Eagle-Tribune was an exception, I believe we should learn from the exceptions to the rules. Change comes from the edges not from the center. That fact is, though, smaller, second-tier (and lower) paper regularly win Pulitzers:

 The Rutland (Vt.) Herald in 2001 for editorial writing.
 The Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune in 2000 for explanatory journalism.
 The Village Voice in 2000 for international reporting.
 The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News in 1998 for national reporting.
 The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald in 1998 for public service.

Dayton? National reporting? Its story "disclosed dangerous flaws and mismanagement in the military health care system and prompted reforms" and beat out the New York Times for the award.

The Grand Forks Herald has a circulation 33,000 and, I'm sure, far fewer resources than those its editors or reporters would like to have. But when their city was inundated by flood waters and scorched by fire, those editors and reporters did good journalism, and they did better than anyone else that year.

It's time to stop whining, to stop finger-pointing, to stop blaming bad, boring journalism on lack of money.

In the story I just did for the American Journalism Review about the rise of Spanish-language publishing in the United States, Louis Sito, publisher of the splashy New York tabloid Hoy said:

"Look at most of the newspapers. They are boring! They are boring! What are we doing to attract new readers to a product that competes with the 24/7 coverage of news on the electronic media? We have to evolve into something that has more analysis, has more relevancy, has more educational punch to it, has more fun.... If you look at our circulation levels across the industry, they go down every year. So we cannot be smug and say that because we have been here forever we are going to continue to be here forever. That is crazy."

At the top of this piece, I mentioned newsroom culture, which is another way of saying a newspaper's internal personality. Why do some papers regularly excel at journalism? Who do others with larger staffs suffer from persistent blandness, unable to change even though they have, as Denver Post ranter Barry Hartman put it, "every trick in the book to win the hearts and minds of readers in hopes of stopping the bleeding of circulation numbers."

I believe because the winners concentrate on doing good journalism and the losers obsess about why they can't do good journalism. And journalism done well offsets a lot of the profession's lesser attractions - the pay, for instance.

An organization's internal culture is reflected in its external product. In this case, a newsroom that is focused on the negative, that is fixated on frustration instead of searching for solutions, that finds its glass always half empty will produce a newspaper that turns off readers, leaves them frustrated and is half read.

Learn more about newsroom culture. Go to the Readership Institute, download the hefty PDFs of its studies, which found that most newspapers have the organizational personality of the Postal Service, and begin working toward change.

And, please, stop whining.

 Denver Post Newspapers are doing themselves in
 Readership Institute Newspaper Culture

Posted by Tim Porter at October 6, 2003 05:34 PM

Well, said, with one nit: Equating Pulitzers with overall quality is a dodgy assumption ... how much kick-ass journalism did you put in the paper that never saw the eyes of a Pulitzer juror? How many people have gone back to those small-town winners and apprised the overall quality of their news report? How many important local stories went unreported while prize-winning entries were being amassed? You may also have been out of the newsroom long enough to have forgotten the demoralizing effect of being told for the 927th time, "there's no money for that," when we know good and well that the money *is* there but the company refuses to spend it. I agree we've become obsessed with what we can't do to the point that it's blinding us to what can be done, but after being told "no" so many times, we've be become "no" people.

Posted by: tom on October 6, 2003 09:22 PM

I work at a paper that's gunning for a Pulitzer. Nearly every available body has worked on one story for months. Who gets served? The paper's ambitions or the readers who aren't getting a lot of other news as a result?

And that's the legacy of the beancounters: There aren't enough bodies and beans to do both.

Posted by: anon on October 7, 2003 08:53 AM

I agree with Tom that a Pulitzer is not a guaranteed indication of day-to-day quality, if it's a choice between being mediocre with occasional flashes of greatness vs. being mediocre all the time, I'll take the former.

Tom is also right about the negative reinforcement of newsroom managers who say 'no' to new ideas or extra effort (the overtime issue) or stories that don't have a guaranteed payoff, which is the nature of most investigations. But that's a leadership issue, not a financial one. Yes, more money is better. Always. But my point is that many, many newspapers with plenty of resources -- let's do a headcount at some of the top 25 papers -- still produce a blah version of journalism. And that, too, is a leadership issue.

To me, it's about making choices. If you've got 100 reporters, what do you do with them? If you've got 8, what do you do with them?

Posted by: Tim on October 7, 2003 11:44 AM

Jim Squires (if I recall correctly) wrote a book about his turnaround effort at the Orlando Sentinel that makes Tim's point in considerable detail. He made the paper far far better without any effect on budget or profits.

Posted by: tom on October 7, 2003 03:30 PM
Post a comment