December 15, 2003

L.A. Times' Other Media Critic

I interviewed David Shaw of the L.A. Times the other day for a project I'm involved in. We discussed why it seems that stories about social justice - race, poverty, inequity - are a tough sell these days in most newsrooms and what could be done to reverse that.

Shaw was direct in his advice to reporters and editors who want to do those stories: Work harder, be more creative, try new and different approaches to topics that are longstanding, and keep the reader in mind.

Shaw writes today in a similar vein, commenting on a seminar he attended at which issues of ethics, ownership and credibility were discussed at. He writes:

"I know this sounds both personally naïve and institutionally self-serving - after all, I've been a journalist for 40 years, 35 of them with The Times - and I'm aware of not just the blatant betrayals of the public interest by the likes of Blair and Glass but the more systemic, more damaging betrayals represented by what I've come to think of as the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalypse: superficiality, sensationalism, preoccupation with celebrity, and obsession with the bottom line. …"

"I continue to believe - and what I see and hear at these journalistic seminars continues to confirm - that the best journalists at the best newspapers remain committed to serving their readers, and the public interest, to the best of their abilities."(Emphasis added)

Shaw also relates this exchange between Charles Ogletree Jr., a Harvard University law professor who moderated the seminar, and Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee:

"What's the most important thing that I should think on as a publisher?" Ogletree asked Rodriguez.

"The credibility of your paper," he answered.

But isn't it possible that people might trust the credibility of the paper and still dislike him if he told them unpleasant truths? Ogletree asked.

"You're not publishing a newspaper to be liked," Rodriguez shot back. "You're publishing a newspaper to inform the public and to promote democracy."(Emphasis added.)

I am routinely critical of the newspaper industry and its leadership, but, like Shaw, I believe the many journalists - even those not at the "best newspapers" - reach for higher standards and operate with higher purpose.

I also believe, displaying some of my own personal naïveté, that newspapers can change, especially if they remember the role so succinctly and correctly described by Rodriguez and learn to interpret its meaning in the broadest sense.

How do we "inform the public and to promote democracy" when traditional methods no longer have the impact they once did?

Part of the answers lies in Shaw's advice: Work harder, be more creative, try new and different approaches to topics that are longstanding, and keep the reader in mind.

 Los Angeles Times: David Shaw If you were the editor, what would you do?

Posted by Tim Porter at December 15, 2003 10:02 AM