December 21, 2002

Purity & Redemption

I have a friend who has a brother-in-law who is a successful movie producer (this is how it is in California). One day this friend and I were tossing about an idea we wanted to pitch to his brother-in-law. Conditioned by years of reducing stories to one-sentence budget lines for news meetings, I had condensed the plot to a sentence I thought was a real grabber. I read it aloud.

"That will never work," said my friend, who had more Hollywood experience than I, which was zero. "Just tell him it's about purity and redemption."

There is a lesson here for newspapers. The greatest of movies are about values and ideas and the story exists only as a vehicle to convey those values to the viewer.

Perceptive movie critics understand this. For example, A.O. Scott of the New York Times suggests that certain core values shape director Martin Scorcese's new film, "Gangs of New York." He writes:

"… Mr. Scorsese has functioned as a kind of romantic visual anthropologist, fascinated by tribal lore and language, by half-acknowledged codes of honor and retribution and by the boundaries between loyalty and vengeance, between courtesy and violence, that underlie a given social order."

Unfortunately, most newspaper editors and reporters, driven by the demands of deadlines or shackled by the chains of "good-enough" expectations, don't share Scott's acuity when it comes to interpreting their communities. The forest of larger ideas hides beneath the hastily felled timber of the daily paper.

Chris Hedges of the New York Times offers an excellent illustration of how a newspaper writer can weave the big idea into a compelling story, in this case a series of emotional, human stories centered on the Ten Commandments.

Hedges' series, Thou Shalt Not, "tell the stories of ordinary people who struggle with the directions of ancient laws in the modern world, reject them or simply cope with them."

Today's story, the seventh in the series, focuses on a young man born from an adulterous affair then abandoned by his father to grow up in a series of abusive foster homes. Entitled "For Child of an Affair, the Bitterness Lingers," the story contains this graph:

"While for some adultery no longer carries the collective moral weight it once did, Mr. Vargas … wears the broken commandment like a heavy chain around his neck. He says it has done nothing short of devastating his life."

Innocence lost. Revenge. Redemption.

Yes, the New York Times does have 1,200 newsroom employees. Certainly it has an advantage over other newspapers. But only one person reported and wrote Thou Shalt Not.

Chris Hedges is not a religion writer, but the Religion Newswriters Association has 240 members, many of whom presumably have the talent and will to do such a project. Do they work in newsroom cultures that encourage ideas such as exploring the role of the Ten Commandments in modern life? How many editors would hear out such a pitch or encourage the writer to develop it instead of replying, What do you have for Sunday?

Audacity is undervalued in newsrooms, but it is the audacious thought that leads to the bigger idea.

A former colleague of mine once received the following message from a reporter angling for a trip to the South Pacific:

"We have to talk about Baba Free John, kidnapped playmates, anal sex, cigarette burns on luscious backsides, drug orgies for God, and the young gay millionaires who are being recruited to join his cult. Sounds like a good Easter story."

It wasn't the Ten Commandments, but it was close enough.

 Thou Shalt Not Times series on the Ten Commandments
 For Child of an Affair, the Bitterness Lingers latest in the series
 Online interview with Chris Hedges
 Religion Newswriters Association
 The Ten Commandments

Posted by Tim Porter at 01:20 PM

December 20, 2002

Online News Audience - Newspapers Still Have Half

How you interpret the latest report on news web sites depends on whether you're a half-full or half-empty kind of person.

The Nielsen/Net Ratings online audience survey for November found that half of the top 20 online news sites are operated by newspaper companies. The others belong to broadcasters or aggregators.

Editor & Publisher ran the story under the headline "Newspapers Run Half Of Top News Sites." That's the optimistic view. The headline could have easily read: Newspapers Run Only Half Of Top News Sites.

Either headline is misleading because the survey grouped all of a company's news sites into one entry, meaning that four of the 10 "newspapers" on the list were Gannett, Hearst, McClatchy and Cox. It would be more informative to know how those companies' individual papers ranked.

Regardless, no newspaper placed in the top five sites - MSNBC, CNN, AOL News, Yahoo News, and ABC News. No. 6 was the New York Times.

 Editor & Publisher  Newspapers Run Half Of Top News Sites

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:01 AM

Why Newspapers Exist

Eric Alterman, the media columnist for the Nation, challenges the contention that the New York Times has over-covered the controversy of the Augusta National Golf Club's men-only admission policy.

As of Dec. 3, says Alterman, the Times published 33 stories on the issue, causing conservative pundits and some competing journalists to complain that the Times, guided by editor Howell Raines, has an unhealthy obsession with Augusta. Alterman responds:

"The anger, moreover, is curious because Times coverage has hardly been out of whack with the rest of the nation's newspapers. As of December 3 it had published four fewer stories than the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's thirty-seven, where Augusta is a local story, and just slightly more than the Los Angeles Times (twenty-seven pieces), USA Today (twenty-four) and the Washington Post (twenty-two)."

And, if the Times was alone in its coverage, does it matter? asks Alterman, providing a cogent answer to the current question of newspaper relevancy.

"I am of the opinion that newspaper editors have the right to crusade against whatever and whomever they choose, so long as they observe the basic rules of fairness to their readers and their subjects. That's one reason we have them."

Yes it is.

 Eric Alterman The Nation

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:10 AM

December 18, 2002

A Whole Lott of Blogging Going On

Mark Glaser writes in the Online Journalism Review that "the Internet is slowly changing the rules of journalism." Glaser is the latest voice in the chorus singing hosannas to the host of bloggers, led by Josh Marshall in his Talking Points Memo, who leaped on the Trent Lott's Dixiecrat-ism and beat on it until the mainstream press took note.

Now columnists from the New York Times to the two posts - the one in New York and the other one in Washington - credit bloggers with breaking the story. Even Time chimed in: "If Lott didn't see the storm coming, it was in part because it was so slow in building. The papers did not make note of his comments until days after he had made them. But the stillness was broken by the hum of Internet "bloggers" who were posting their outrage and compiling rap sheets of Lott's earlier comments."

The alarm clock has rung again for newspapers. Will they continue to sleep through the information revolution or will they finally wake up and realize that new media means more than having an IP address?

Update, Dec. 19: Staci Kramer, an editor at the Online Journalism Review, says bloggers don't deserve all the credit for the Lott story. She writes in the "The Perfect News Incubator": "The romanticized story has the weblogs beating the drums until the media was forced to pick up the rhythm. That doesn’t explain how the bloggers who didn’t have an invite to Strom Thurmond’s party heard about Lott’s Dec. 5 comments."

 Mark Glaser Online Journalism Review
 Staci Kramer Online Journalism Review
 Talking Points Memo
 Howard Kurtz Washington Post
 John Podhoretz New York Post
 Time Tripped Up By History

Posted by Tim Porter at 05:42 PM

December 15, 2002

Tale of a Kidnapping -- A World-Class Story

Hearst Corp. sold its flagship newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, two years ago and bought the morning competition in its JOA, the larger San Francisco Chronicle, a newspaper so maligned that it cannot ever be profiled without reference to Jason Robards, playing Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men," dismissing an annoying salesmen who was pitching a feature on yesterday's weather with this line: "Send it out to the San Francisco Chronicle - they need it."

To quell fears in San Francisco's liberal political circles that a lack of daily newspaper competition would leave the city's citizenry even less informed than they were under the arcane publishing restrictions of the joint operating agreement, Hearst managers vowed to upgrade the Chron into a "world-class newspaper."

Like the Bradlee quip, the phrase took on a life of its own and is mentioned in every story reporting on the Chronicle's revival, all of which conclude that while the paper is making strides under its new owners and editors the goal of being "world class" eludes it.

Just two weeks ago, Felicity Barringer of the New York Times led off her update on the Chronicle with these graphs:

"In the social ecosystem of the Bay Area, The San Francisco Chronicle has never been an alpha male.

"Despite a talented staff and a region brimming with seamy dealings to be investigated, The Chronicle has struggled journalistically while its persistent thirst for respect remains unslaked."

Perhaps Barringer wrote too soon.

In October, the Chronicle named a new managing editor -- former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal, a former international reporter under the eminent Gene Roberts and a journalistic character in his own right who Philadelphia Weekly described as "the last of a dying breed of newspapermen with ink in their veins, dashing figures who hopscotched across the globe to get the story."

Rosenthal's hiring was widely seen as a commitment by the Chronicle to serious journalism. Even newsroom skeptics could not fault the credentials he earned in the Inquirer's trenches. He possesses, in the words of one Chron reporter, "an old-fashioned desire for good stories."

The Chronicle ran just such a story today - a dramatic, detailed, well-written account of how an FBI agent on the outs with his bosses cracked (to borrow the Chron's headline) the case of a lifetime, that of Cary Stayner, the motel handyman who abducted and killed three women outside Yosemite National Park in 1999.

The 6,500-word article, reported and written by Stacy Finz, who covered the slayings and the arrest of Stayner, is a story of crime, redemption and the dark depths of human nature that features a gripping retelling of the day FBI agent Jeff Rinek coaxed a confession out of Stayner.

For those of us in the Bay Area, the story delivers the type of compelling reporting for which readers hunger. For others in journalism, it offers an example of excellence worth emulating.

 The Case of a Lifetime
 Philadelphia weekly profile of Robert Rosenthal
 New York Times story on the Chronicle
 Columbia Journalism Review story with Ben Bradlee quote
 Sale of the Examiner Scott Rosenberg of Salon
 Sale of the Examiner Chronicle staff story

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:59 PM

December 13, 2002

Goodbye photojournalism

AP reports:

"The University of Texas, alma mater to a dozen Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers, may cut its undergraduate photojournalism program to focus on studies that emphasize video and other new media."

"The proposal was prompted because of changes in the news industry, especially a growing appetite for online news. … there are fewer jobs for photojournalists who take only still pictures, while there is greater need for photographers who can also shoot video and edit digital images and videos for Web sites and other media."

What next? Eliminating in-depth reporting classes because of the blurbifying of news?

 More "You have the potential of losing the journalism part of the photography," he said. "You don't manipulate photos. You don't alter photos. You don't, at times, run the best photo because the best photo may not tell the story accurately."

Posted by Tim Porter at 02:45 PM

Raves: Buddhist cabby, blind soothsayer and a Virgin

Joyce Wadler, New York Times, profile of a photographer
Mr. Weideman, as befits a Buddhist cabby photographer, is very neat. Shoes must be removed upon entering the apartment, and in a particular way: step onto a mat, remove shoes, step out of shoes directly onto floor. If not, Mr. Weideman is agitated. "No! no!" he'll shout, causing a reporter to freeze on one foot, wondering how she could have socially transgressed before even beginning the interview. "You're tracking the dirt from the mat onto the floor!"

Janny Scott, New York Times, scenes from the subway
Even in the best of times, the New York City subway system is a realm of perpetual mystery: inexplicable changes of itinerary, petulant turnstiles, announcements spoken in tongues. In the face of which, New Yorkers long ago perfected an attitude of weary knowingness: if there is one thing New Yorkers think they know, it is that they know the score.

Patricia Yollin, San Francisco Chronicle, celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe
Parties that start at 4 a.m. don't usually draw a crowd - even those that offer tamales, rum-laced coffee and mariachi music. The Virgin of Guadalupe, however, knows how to pack them in.

Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times, profile of a blind astrologer
A warm blanket draped across his bone-thin shoulders, Omarr struggled to catch his breath, then smiled with an explanation: "About those adoring women: It's the astrology they're in love with, not me."

As for the gambling, "I win more than I lose."

Well, of course.

Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, column
The city of Carson hosted a holiday banquet Wednesday night to honor young winners of an essay contest on good citizenship and, one by one, the children were presented medallions by a mayor under indictment on corruption charges.

Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, on the editor of the Washington Monthly
"He hates snide, snotty writing. He hates egghead journalism, where you're casting about theories. If you don't have evidence, he will not print what you want to argue. . . . He talks all the time. Sometimes Josh and I have to yank him off the phone when we're on deadline."

Posted by Tim Porter at 09:36 AM

December 12, 2002

Rat-a-tat-tat: Tina Guns Down the Times

Tina Brown finds American newspapers lacking in luster. Perhaps they need someone who writes with her flair.

In her column today in the Times (the one in London) she bemoans the "dullness of most American newspapers" and credits only the New York Post with possessing some "Fleet Street pizzazz."

The Post, she writes, "arrives in the morning with a squeal of tyres and a burst of gunfire. It's read urgently, like a ransom note."

What editor wouldn't want to have his or her paper described that way?

Something is working right for the Post. The latest ABC figures show that the Post's circulation jumped 10.5 percent to 590,061 for the six months ending Sept. 30, a time when other papers averaged a 0.3 percent decline.

What editor wouldn't want to those numbers?

 Tina Brown's column
 New York Post

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:20 AM

December 11, 2002

Bush the Bellicose: How Big a Story is President’s New ‘Shoot First’ Foreign Policy?

There's no doubt it's news when the White House reverses a half-century of military restraint and declares that henceforth the United States will shoot first then explain later when encountering an enemy with a weapon of mass destruction pointed our way.

It's even bigger news when the administration states that the U.S. is willing to retaliate with nuclear force if some enemy does get the jump on us, either at home or abroad.

How big a story is this change? That is the question - and judging by the disparate decisions regarding the news by the Washington Post and the New York Times that answer won't be easily determined.

The Post played the news as its lead story under the headline "Preemptive Strikes Part of U.S. Strategic Doctrine." The Times, though, only gave the story a three-graph reefer on its front page with this headline: "A Warning for Foes In U.S. Arms Plan."

In its lead, the Post proffers that the new strategy "underscores the United States's willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons for chemical or biological attacks on U.S. soil or against American troops overseas." The Times, though, restricts itself to quoting from the White House document (PDF), which states that the U.S. is prepared to "respond with all our options" if WMD are used against Americans.

Clearly, the Times reporter David Sanger and his editors thought less of the policy shift than their counterparts at the Post. Indeed, Sanger even characterizes some details of the strategy as "familiar" parts of "post Sept. 11 precautions."

To the subscribers of the New York Times' and Washington Post's news services - which include most, if not all, the mid-sized and larger newspapers in the country - this disagreement over the story's importance must have been confusing. Editors at these papers routinely use the Times and Post news budgets, which move on the wire along with the stories, to assess the value of a story and its subsequent play in their own papers.

Why not follow the informed decision making of the nation's two most prominent papers? After all, it is their editors - not those of the paper in Dubuque or Pittsburgh or Fresno - who hold the expertise in anti-proliferation policies or the machinations of certain Mideast potentates or the current size of the hole in the ozone layer, subjects that are rightly beyond the scope of most newsrooms here in the homeland.

So, when the Times and the Post bestow enough gravitas on a story to grant it space on their front pages, most other U.S. editors follow suit.

What happens, though, when they disagree? Let's take a look.

Front page:

 Austin American-Statesman - led with Post story: "Iraq faces threat of nuclear response"
 Houston Chronicle - used the Post story.
 New York Daily News - over the flag reefer: "Bush: Nukes Are Option in Iraq".
 Dallas Morning News - used the Post story.
 Hartford Courant - led with Post story: "U.S. Policy: Strike First".
 Honolulu Advertiser - bannered Post story over five columns: "Preemptive strike option OK'd".
 Los Angeles Times - led with staff story: "U.S. Bolsters Its Policy of Deterrence".
 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - used L.A. Times story: "U.S. toughens strategy on enemy threats".
 New York Post - led with staff story: "We'll Nuke You".
 Portland Oregonian - used Post story, off lead: "Bush policy includes pre-emptive strikes".
 Cleveland Plain Dealer - led with Post story: "Bush plan: Attack first".
 San Francisco Chronicle - led with Post story: "Bush doctrine: Hit first".
 Charleston Post and Courier - used L.A. Times story: "Pre-emptive strike policy outlined".
 Providence Journal - led with Post story: "U.S. outlines tough new policy to deter attacks".
 Seattle Times - used Post story: "U.S. toughens nuclear-strike policy".
 Minneapolis Star Tribune - used Post story: "New policy calls for pre-emptive strikes by U.S."

Not on the front page:

Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe (A14), Arizona Republic, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Charlotte Observer, Chicago Tribune, Des Moines Register, Idaho Statesman, Indianapolis Star, Kansas City Star, Las Vegas Review Journal, Miami Herald, Newsday, Oakland Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Rocky Mountain News, Reno Gazette-Journal, San Antonio Express-News, San Diego Union-Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Petersburg Times, Newark Star-Ledger, Albany Times Union, Tulsa World, USA Today.

 The Newseum: 164 daily front pages.
 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction

Posted by Tim Porter at 06:02 PM

December 10, 2002

Rave: A sinuously good story

When writers avoid clichés, when writers use personal experience to add depth, when writers embrace wit, detail and style, then a story like this emerges (by Natalie Angier, in the Science section of today’s New York Times:

Venomous and Sublime: The Viper Tells Its Tale

Not long ago in Zion National Park in southern Utah, a couple of hikers — O.K., one of them was this writer — came upon a big and handsome Western rattlesnake off to the side of the trail. The snake was coiled on a rocky outcropping just below eye level, sunning itself, as ectotherms love to do. A dappled velvet cable at home on the checkerboard stage of the desert.

Soon, a throng of other hikers had gathered round to gawk, leaning in to take pictures and then squealing excitedly as the snake snapped its head toward a camera flash with a withering glower. When a park ranger arrived to see what the fuss was about and said yes, it was a real rattlesnake with genuine venom in its fangs, a teenage girl in the throng breathed out a sentiment surely shared by the group: "That is so cool! I've never seen one of these things outside a zoo before."

Is there anything cooler than a snake or more evocative of such a rich sinusoidal range of sensations? Snakes are beckoning. Snakes are terrifying. Snakes are elegant, their skins like poured geometry.

Snakes are preposterous. Just watch one galumph its jaws around a stunned hare or a chicken egg or even another snake.

Around the world, people dream of snakes more than of any other animal. As scientists learn more about the biology, evolution and behavior of these earthiest and most Freudianized of creatures, snakes just keep getting cooler, a fitting fate for a coldblooded reptile.

 Read the entire story

Posted by Tim Porter at 08:04 AM

December 07, 2002

But Ugly Leads

While I was at the San Francisco Examiner, I worked with a prolific, creative reporter named Edvins Beitiks who, among his many passions, crusaded against the use of clichés in the newspaper.

Ed was a storyteller by nature and he reported with the energy of a man who discovered life anew each day. He never wrote the same lead twice and couldn’t abide those who did.

Ed was also a collector and over time assembled an impressive assortment of timeworn phrases and quotes that he occasionally emailed around the newsroom for the enlightenment of all.

Among them were:

“He was such a quiet man,” said a neighbor, who asked not to be identified. “I’d see him at the market and one time he even helped me with my groceries. I can’t believe it’s true.”


Shaking his head, Officer Kite said, “I’ve been on the force for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There were many more – earthquakes that sounded like freight trains, defendants who showed no emotion, burnt out buildings that looked like war zones – but you get the idea.

Ed’s examples would be more humorous if they were a thing of the past, a relic of a time before reporters and editors held master's degrees, before writing coaches, before the ongoing debate over which style of newswriting can best capture and hold a busy reader’s attention.

Unfortunately, the clichés continue, both in word and in story structure, and their presence thwarts efforts to engage readers. When stories appear similar to each other, readers are likely to scan them and skip the sections that seem overly familiar. The impact of the information – the news – is softened by the vague déjà vu readers experience – the “haven’t I read this somewhere before" feeling – when they encounter clichés.

In other words, clichés undercut a newspaper’s ability to surprise, its chief asset.

Sadly, the lead of the story, the paragraph (or two, or three) intended to sink the hook deep into the reader’s attention span, can suffer irreparably in the hands of a writer who resorts to clichés.

Bob Baker, a Los Angeles Times reporter, enumerates “The 17 worst clichés in the newspaper business” on his website, Newsthinking. In his introduction to the list, Bob writes: “Didn't they (the writers) have enough pride to resist sounding so ordinary?”

Not on Bob’s list is one of my favorites, the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” lead. The indicative giveaway is a “but” placed either in then middle of the first sentence or leading off the second. Intended to surprise, delight or shock – such as: John Jones seemed like the average dad, but then he was arrested for selling cocaine – it does none of these.

The format is so common that multiple examples can be found easily in most newspapers. A quick glance in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (I don’t mean to pick on the Chron, but it’s my hometown paper) found these leads on the Business cover and front page:

United’s new CEO has flown through some tough times
Glenn Tilton faced a tough room when he met with United mechanics at San Francisco International Airport last week. … But UAL Corp.’s latest chairman, president and chief executive officer didn’t hide behind a podium.

Berkeley mayor apologizes for trashing of newspapers
Berkeley’s new mayor, former state Assemblyman Tom Bates, has yet to convene his first City Council meeting but is reeling from a major embarrassment …

In just a few minutes of Googling, I found numerous other examples. Here are few:

Furor hits home for Pocket dad who filed suit
He's a 49-year-old dad who drives a Ford, lives in a modest two-story house and spent Wednesday morning emptying his dishwasher and taking out the trash.

But by the afternoon, Pocket resident Dr. Michael Newdow was at the center of a storm of controversy over God, the classroom and American values.

-- Sacramento Bee, June 27, 2002

Cost of Bay Area homes still rising
The median home price in Alameda County reached $391,000 last month, a real estate information service said Monday.

But while that price tag is far lower then the whopping $571,000 median in San Francisco, it's still about $140,000 more than Livermore resident Elizabeth Gilliam and her partner, Stripe Demarest, can afford.

-- San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2002

Redmond Thursday movie nights target teen audiences
The backside of Redmond City Hall may seem an unlikely place for youths to hang out, but since last year it has become a popular spot for teens to gather on lazy summer nights.

-- Seattle Times, June 26, 2002

Sacramento atheist who filed suit holds court at home
Michael A. Newdow has Connie Chung waiting for him, an answering machine full of threats from a new cadre of enemies, and an outraged Congress and president -- but the dishes still need to be done.

-- San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 2002

S.F.'s gay community: United by differences
Sunday's Gay Pride Parade may look like one long, marching lovefest, but insiders know that appearances -- even gorgeous ones -- can be deceiving.

-- San Francisco Examiner, June 28, 2002

Can At-Work Brand Network Buy Ad Sales With 'Competitive Pricing'?
Five of the top news and information sites banded together last week to offer what they hope will be an irresistible sell for advertisers and provide a much-needed boost to the online advertising market. But some say the hook -- the ability to reach more than 40% of the at-work Internet audience -- amounts to little more than a price break for advertisers.

-- Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2002

Ed Beitiks wouldn't have written these leads. Their authors should not have either.

 Bob Baker's Newsthinking

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:26 PM | Comments (1)

December 04, 2002

Quality Manifesto: Good Enough is Not

I worked in newspapers for more than 20 years, first as a photographer, then as a reporter and editor, eventually rising – or falling, depending on your view of editors – to the upper ranks of middle management, where I first became involved in discussions about readership – more specifically, about declining readership.

Over the course of a dozen years as a department head or higher, I listened – in newspaper conference rooms, at executive retreats and at various industry conferences -- to a parade of experts lecture on the importance of demographic quintiles, the changing habits of the American family and the ascendancy of television news. They presented impressively thick, slickly-bound reports stuffed with bar charts, quotes from readers and non-readers, results of intercept surveys and, of course, recommendations for change.

All delivered the same, simple message: A generational meteor had crashed into our industry and we editorial dinosaurs needed to evolve or perish.

A parallel group of newspaper healers arose from academia and newsrooms themselves offering remedies to our ailments and prescriptions for a more vigorous future.

We mixed the medicine in the kool-aid and drank. We redesigned, we zoned, we diversified our staffs, we discarded the pyramid and embraced the narrative, we redesigned some more.

Despite these efforts – some might argue because of them – newspapers lost readers and America lost newspapers. Between 1980, a couple of years after I started reporting, and 2000, the number of daily newspapers in the United States declined 15 percent -- from 1,745 to 1,480.

The decline has continued since then. Even though the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington rekindled public interest in some forms of news -- for example, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in June 2002 that after 9/11 the decline in viewership of TV news stabilized for the first time in years and the New York Times reported significant circulation gains that are widely attributed to its benchmark-setting covering of the attacks and their aftermath -- newspapers in general failed to benefit.

The Pew study found that readership marched steadily downward. Only 41 percent of Americans stated they had read a newspaper the previous day compared to 47 percent who did so in 2000. In 1994, the number was 60 percent.

The intervening maturation of the Internet accounts for some of that decline, but even online news consumption seems to be plateauing, according to Pew, whose study found only slight growth in the use of Internet news sites between 2000 and 2002, a “sharp contrast” to the spike of readership in the late 1990s, when the medium was new.

Media Life, an online magazine, quoted Karroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center: “Internet news, while emerging as a major source, hasn’t really filled the void. It hasn’t caught all those people who are clicking off the television or putting down their newspapers.”

Indeed, a study conducted in the summer of 2002 by Belden Associates, a newspaper consulting firm, found that the online operations of newspapers do not cannibalize readers from the core print edition. In fact, the study concluded, online readers can actually lead to increased single-copy sales.

So, what can be done? If the Internet is not killing newspapers (at least editorially), if television news is no longer the convenient scapegoat for circulation declines, if older readers are dying off and younger would-be readers don’t, well, read, if all this is true, then what hope is there for the average American newspaper as a civic institution?

The answer lies in a redefinition of the issue. Simply: Newspapers are not the victims of homicide but of suicide. They are not dying at the hands of demographic changes or emergent technologies. They are killing themselves with clichéd writing, formulaic stories, hackneyed photographs and adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth.

Newspapers don’t have a societal problem; they have a quality problem.

In an age of increasing public sophistication – and diversification – about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers.

Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough.

Consider a newspaper whose circulation is not declining – the New York Times. On Nov. 30, in an event broadcast on C-SPAN, Orville Schell and Mark Danner of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism interviewed Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Howell Raines of the Times. In a series of questions about the Times’ post-Sept. 11 coverage, Sulzberger said the newspaper committed to publishing its Portraits of Grief section without advertising support for as long as the Times' editors felt it was warranted.

Schlesinger added, however, that the coverage resulted in enough of a circulation increase to offset the cost of the additional coverage. The point is clear: By investing journalistically, the Times also improved financially.

A 2002 report from the Aspen Institute exploring the relationship between quality journalism and commercial success begins with this question: “Is great journalism compatible with great business in the context of the current media marketplace?”

The reported concluded, cautiously, that "substantive reporting" and "corporate performance" can co-exist, but it warned also that the news industry's ingrained toxins of greed and complacency would poison efforts to nurture this relationship were they not neutralized.

Among the most worrisome negative conditions, the report cited this:

The culture of news organizations tends to be defensive and change-averse. Relative to other industries, journalism is slow to implement internal reform in its own processes or respond to changes in consumer taste. Recent research by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, for example, has found not that the public is uninterested in news but rather it is dissatisfied with many of the staples that editors typically provide (e.g., #1 on the audience preference list was stories about ordinary people, #2 was ‘how I fit into my community’; # 3 was national and international news; crime ranked #8 and sports #9, strongly suggesting that interest doesn’t justify the amount of coverage).”

My intent in this journal is to spur discussion about quality journalism, to point to places we can learn from – either through example or avoidance – to provide resources for debate and to counter the pervasive belief in many newsrooms that “good enough” is good enough.

It is not.

Posted by Tim Porter at 10:43 AM | Comments (2)