You may have been wondering where I've been. I'm here, back from Oaxaca, but I brought a little something back with me that's kept me away from First Draft -- a nasty bug bite that turned much of my right arm into an Italian salami and caused the very efficient emergency room doctors at Marin General to shoot me full of antibiotics and encase the arm in plaster wrap.
I type lousy enough with two hands, so forget one.
The cast is off now for a few hours, a sign of progress, but I need to keep the arm mostly still so blogging will be light in the next few days.
What bit me? I have no idea, except that it wasn't one of the scorpions, black widows, various varieties of wasps or fire ants that live around (and sometimes in) the house.
Hasta pronto. Ojala.
Eric Celeste of the Dallas Observer, commenting on the battle for younger readers in Dallas between two new tabloids, A.M. Journal Express and Quick, blames newspapers' lack of appeal to 18- to 34-year-olds on their reluctance to print the "F" word - a metaphor for their inability to understand the complexities of this next generation.
"For a long time, Big Media Company honchos have theorized that young people don't read their papers because young people are stupid and don't read. This theory is wrong. Many young people read books, for example. A study done last year by the Pew Center found that more people in that age range read a book every day than read a newspaper.
"That's because books often have at least one of three qualities that young people demand, things few dailies have: 1) They're smartly written, because kids are smarter than you think; 2) they're useful, while much of what is in newspapers can be found easily and quickly online; and 3) they reflect the world young people live in."
When the Dallas Morning News launched Quick two weeks ago, I quoted Mary Nesbitt of the Readership Institute saying something similar: "'It's not that they don't read the local daily newspaper, it's that compared to previous generations, they don't read at the same level."
Smart writing, as Celeste points out, is a scarcity in newspapers. Here, for example, is the lead from Quick's Friday cover story about an exhibit by photographer Annie Leibovitz:
"Annie Leibovitz's famed portraits speak extraordinary stories. The close-up of a New York woman and her swollen eye utters words of sadness about domestic violence. The depiction of three poker-faced San Antonio girls in jerseys and bandanas waxes on about teen gangs."
Not smart, not even well-written. The lead resorts to several clichés and the story, in all its nine paragraphs, never identifies Leibovitz as the Vanity Affair and Rolling Stone photographer, which I would think would increase the interest to younger readers who may not otherwise be drawn to a story about a photo exhibit at the Dallas Women's Museum.
How can newspapers, as Celeste puts it, "reflect the world young people live in" when the journalists on those papers don't share that world?
"More than half of the people who read The Dallas Morning News or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram are older than 50," says Celeste. He could have added that the average age of the American journalist is 41 and nearly one in three is older than 45.
Newspapers need younger people writing and editing them, just as they've learned they need Spanish-speaking journalists to reach Spanish-speaking audiences.
Do they have to print the "F" word to reach that younger audience? No. But they do need to understand that, as Celeste says, "young people want the world as they see it: without filters. It's why they love The Daily Show. Because it's smart, informed, crude and passionate. Like young people."
"Smart, informed, crude and passionate" journalism may not appeal to those older than 50 readers (although I'm sure they'd embrace "smart, informed and passionate"), but one size of journalism doesn't have to fit all.
The mass news audience is a myth, a relic wistfully remembered of a time before television replaced reading as an after-dinner activity, before Vietnam arrived live in America's livingrooms, before the Internet enabled the audience to become the publisher and before those sought-after 18- to 34-year olds were born.
Journalism is not a 14-by-21-inch roll of newsprint. It doesn't have to happen in English, be written in language purged of passion or even be the product of a "news organization." Journalism is a set of values, a way of delivering information that embraces fairness, verification, civic discourse and concern for the public good. In fact, journalism should be smart. It should be informed. It assuredly should be passionate. And, at times, it should be fucking crude.
Eric Celeste Curse of Youth
I am in Oaxaca, Mexico, for week to deal with a few house-related things and to catch up with my neighbors, three of whom just spent a month in a Oaxacan jail after being used as pawns in a land dispute.
Meanwhile, this is a good opportunity for you to catch up on some of the Best of First Draft:
The Quality Manifesto: What started it all.
Journalists Overpaid? Nonsense: There are many reasons newsrooms have disconnected from the communities they cover, but overly fat paychecks is not one of them.
No More Whining: He's wrong that penurious publishers are to blame for readership woes.
Eliminating the Bimbo Factor: I practiced journalism, but I knew almost nothing about it - although I thought I did.
Would You Pay a Nickel to Read This?: In the world of online newspapers (and other media), the debate over whether to charge for content (more revenue) or not (more readers) draws well-reasoned and emotional commentary from both sides.
Newspapers Disrupted: "When you realize this newfangled thing is stealing your business, and you aren't sure how to get it back."
How Journalism Went Bad: Reading writer Michael D'Antonio's thoughtful essay on the demise of traditional journalism (print and broadcast) in the L.A. Times reminded me of the Woody Allen line about death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Time for a Leadership Tuneup: Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines.
There's Nothing Left but the Journalism: Quality sells. Relevance matters. The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer's attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that's left is the journalism.
A Stanford University group called Grade the News monitored the amount of crime coverage in the Bay Area news media and then asked local TV news directors and newspaper editors to comment on its findings.
It's almost too easy, almost too cheap a shot, to pick on San Francisco Chronicle metro editor Ken Connor for his explanation of how the Chronicle chooses which crimes to cover. Says Connor:
"We've made a real decision here in our crime coverage. In the newsroom there's cheap crime and there's good crime. Good crime is what's important to our readership in the nine-county Bay Area, which would be a crime that has sufficient interest to the greatest number of people or communities. Cheap crime is often confined to a neighborhood."(Emphasis added).
Cheap crime? What neighborhood activist, community representative or mother or father of someone killed in a shooting "confined to a neighborhood" wouldn't look at those words and see arrogance and willful disregard for their community?
For years, minority communities have accused newspapers of ignoring crime in their neighborhoods in favor of white-on-white crime like the kidnappings of cute, young suburban girls and other "Amber alert" type incidents. What black or Latino or immigrant Asian family whose son was killed in a drive-by would consider the death of their child "cheap"?
And a good crime? What's that? Laci Peterson is one answer. A quick search of the Chronicle's web site found 124 references to Peterson this year alone. Ironically, given Connor's choice of words, Grade the News used the same phrase when it attempted to explain what it called "The Laci Peterson Show":
"Who decides whether any of these stories are news? Often, journalists cover crime because it's easy and cheap to do, and because it never occurred to them to change."(Empahis added).
To be fair to the Chronicle, it has run a number of substantive projects looking at, for example, the ongoing murder spree in neighboring Oakland's poorest neighborhoods, the type of coverage Grade the News calls "thematic," as opposed to the "episodic" reporting of daily murders.
Those of us who have worked in newsrooms, especially on a metro paper with a coverage area much greater than its reporting staff, know what Connor really meant (assuming eloquence failed him). The Chronicle can't report every local crime, nor should it, so it must concentrate on those it deems to the widest reader appeal, which typically are those that don't occur in poor communities, where, ironically, most crime occurs.
How much crime coverage is too much depends on the mission of a particular paper and its community. When I travel to New York, I buy the Post and expect to see more crime stories. That's part of the Post's appeal.
In the Bay Area, Grade the News monitored three newpapers - the Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury, the Contra Costa Times - and found that 16 percent of their column inches to daily and, presumably more substantial, episodic crime coverage.
That means one in six stories is about crime in some way. Is that too many? Yes. One-sixth of my life and one-sixth of most people's lives is not about crime. Studies by the Readership Institute have found readers don't care for the type of crime coverage found in most newspapers. They want less national coverage, fewer photographs and more local coverage. In other words, they don't want more of the "good crimes" like Laci Peterson; they want the "cheap crime" that happens in their neighborhoods and on their blocks.
Newspapers have a lot of crime coverage because they have reporters designated to look for it. This may seem self-evident, but consider how the police beat works on most newspapers, large and small. Each day the police reporter - or reporters in the case of metro - checks in with anywhere from a half-dozen to two dozen law enforcement agencies seeking an answer to the question, "What's going on?"
On a metro with a morning and evening cop reporters that question will get asked more than once a day. Do the math: Metro police beat reporters are asking cops "What's going on?" as much as 40 or 50 times a day - a guaranteed way to produce stories.
Does that happen on any other beat? No, but imagine if it did. Imagine how the content mix would change if health or education or arts reporters made 20, 30 or 40 phone calls a day looking for stories.
Many readers like crime coverage, just as many readers like sports. Sports has its own section, so maybe crime should, too. That's how papers handle crime coverage in Mexico, for example. No shoeshine stand or taqueria is complete without a copy of the local Policiaca section. (Here's one from by favorite town, Oaxaca).
Newspapers need to rethink crime coverage. Some are. The Oregonian, for example, as part of ASNE's Journalism Credibility Project, asked itself: "If we were to create a new newspaper, unbound by the traditions of how we've always done it, what would coverage of crime and public safety look like?"
After several months of conversations with criminal justice experts, community leaders, readers and others, the paper reorganized its crime beats, making them more thematic: Neighborhoods and Quality-of-Life Crimes, Business Crime, Effects of Crime (including victims and prisons), Family and Juvenile Crime. Response from readers, judging from positive reaction to stories and fewer complaints about sensationalism, has been good.
I like the Oregonian's approach to rethinking its crime coverage. It was zero-based. It discarded assumptions. It offered, as the paper put it, this lesson for other newspapers:
"It's important to ask fundamental questions about coverage, asking what parts of our coverage are shaped or possibly distorted by habit or because of the press for newsiness on any given day. It is important to challenge the effectiveness of standard practices in aiding public understanding, keeping the best practices and discarding those that do not best serve readers."(Emphasis added)
That's good, not cheap, advice.
I read two things this morning that made me think about the nature - and the power - of journalism.
The first was Jay Rosen's evisceration of Washington Post editor Leonard Downie for his comments in the Columbia Journalism Review about the process of journalism, which Downie, to simplify, characterizes as primarily stenographic, recording information the public needs and passing it along via the printed page.
Downie's expression of journalistic decision-making is either naïve or calculated. I'm on a big deadline today and don't have time for much elaboration. For now, think about Downie's comments in the context of the principles of journalism outlined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in "The Elements of Journalism":
1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to its citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Any one of these definitions requires more than stenography to put into practice. Taken together, journalism requires more than, as Downie defines it, "an organic process of responding to the information we're finding, and responding to events in society."
The second thing I read this morning caused me to add a tenth principle to the Kovach-Rosenstiel list:
10. Journalism must give voice to the voiceless.
This morning, the New York Times gave voice to the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq by printing excerpts from letters they had written home. Read them.
Some are simple, like that of Sgt. Kevin Morehead, who wrote to his wife in hopeful sentences, telling her not "to worry about how we are going to make it after I get out."
Others reflect a stoic bravery, or maybe just an acceptance of the horrific conditions of war, like that of 19-year-old Rachel Bosveld, who told her mother that, yes, "I did get into a sort of accident" and then described how her truck was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and her "hearing in general isn't good at all anymore."
One is terribly sad, that of 34-year-old Jesse Givens, who wrote a letter to his wife and two children (one of them born 28 days after he died) with the intention it only be read if he were killed. He wrote:
"I never thought that I would be writing a letter like this. I really don't know where to start. I've been getting bad feelings, though and, well, if you are reading this. . . .
"The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy's laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. You saved me from loneliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed.
"… I will always be there with you, Melissa. ... Do me a favor, after you tuck the children in. Give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside and look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile."
This is the power of journalism - to portray life, to share the experience of death, to convey emotion, to carry the voice of a dead soldier from a dirty riverbed in Iraq to Manhattan to my home in California and make me mourn that soldier's death and grieve for his family.
And, it can do all this simply by printing letters. Imagine what journalism can do with initiative and direction.
If Leonard Downie truly believes journalism is nothing more than the construction of a sterile connection between event and reader or government and public, then he is wrong.
Journalism's first obligation is to the truth - and the truth is complicated and messy and elusive. Pursuing it is not a job for a stenographer.
The Dallas Morning News today rolled out its fast-read tab, Quick, which the paper says is aimed at "time starved professionals" ages 18-34.
The initial edition of Quick is heavy on the Jessicas - a teary-eyed Lynch on the cover and overly exposed Simpson on page two. Quick is more people than policy - although the Lynch story inside shares space with the Saudi bombing and some editor found a wire story credits the Beatles and Hendrix with the collapse of the Iron Curtain. (Here's the paper page by page on PDF.)
Whether this mix will compel calendar-stressed young people to pick of the 150,000 copies of Quick the Morning News is giving away each weekday only time will tell.
The first of the next-generation tabs, the Chicago Tribune's year-old RedEye, is only selling 9,000 copies a day, far below predictions, so clearly the Tribune and other papers still have work to do in concocting a formula that draws younger readers (if one exists).
What is clear, though, is the need for newspapers to recognize that one type of journalism doesn't fit all, especially young people. Newcity Chicago magazine, in a story about the Redeye and its competitor, Red Streak, reports that:
"Mary Nesbitt, a director at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University who studies newspapers, uses the 'read yesterday measure.' According to her data, 54 percent of the adult population read a newspaper yesterday, unlike 39 percent of 18-24-year-olds. For both statistics, the percentage increases by ten percent on Sundays. So 'it's not that they don't read the local daily newspaper, it's that compared to previous generations, they don't read at the same level,' she says.(Emphasis added)
I have been a big fan of newspapers' efforts to attract readers using products that recognize class instead of mass. The Dallas Morning News has become a leader in this initiative, first with Al Dia, the Spanish-language daily it launched in September, and now with Quick.
Al Dia and Quick demonstrate a boldness - and, importantly, one backed by a budget - to go after readers instead of waiting for them to arrive by habit. (Not everyone understands that initiative without budget is meaningless. Read Low Risk, Low Reward about Gannett's skeletal youth-oriented, weekly in Cincinnati.)
Innovation is arriving late to the newspaper industry, no doubt driven by a combination of panic and epiphany - I've always found the former to be a persuasive driver of the latter - and these first efforts at reaching new audiences may not succeed. That's not important. What matters is that some newspapers are finally taking risks, and that in itself will be its own reward.
Geneva Overholser of Poynter, a longtime advocate of reporting the names of everyone involved in a sexual assault case, argues, far more more eloquently than I am capable, that doing so upholds the best qualities of good journalism. She writes:
"When it comes to asking whether to use people's names, the journalistic ethic is clear: We name names. We do this for reasons of credibility and fairness. When we make exceptions to this ethic, we must be very careful indeed. To my mind, protecting children is a valid exception. Beyond that, we are on very thin ice. Of all the people who have valid reasons to prefer their names not be in the paper, how can we be wise enough to choose among them?
"... Happily for those of us who believe that openness is the best cure for ignorance, the porous nature of communications today seems about to render this naming issue moot.
"More happily still, we can then turn all this heat toward the eminently deserving journalistic debate of how we cover rape more fairly and honorably." (Emphasis added.)
Geneva Overholser Unraveling Rape Coverage
The Wall Street Journal's readership - as measured by the newspaper industry's official circulation bookkeeper, the Audit Bureau of Circulation - leapt 16 percent in the last year, a phenomenal gain that the Journal engineered by combining, for the first time, its print and online readers.
The paper added 290,412 paid online subscribers to its base of 1.8 million print readers, a nifty bit of arithmetic allowed by ABC under certain conditions. "The electronic edition has to be a replica of the print edition and meet certain price parameters," ABC spokeswoman Marybeth Meils told Newsday.
The Journal is the first major newspaper to meld online and paid subscribers into an audited readership figure it can sell to advertisers. Generally, the larger the subscriber base, the higher the ad rates a publication can levy. The move is certain to influence other newspapers.
Those papers that have already been charging for online content will likely look for ways to add their electronic readership to their advertising base. Those that don't charge now surely will begin to consider it.
"When the big boys take two steps forward everyone else takes one step forward. People are going to sit up and take notice of what the Journal is doing," Earl Wilkinson, of the International Newspaper Marketing Association, told Newsday.
Coincidentally, the Online Journalism Review today has a piece by Donn Friedman of the Albuquerque Journal on how to convert a newspaper's web operation "From Free to Fee in 10 Easy Steps."
Friedman, naturally, is an enthusiastic proponent of paid content. He writes:
"Since we closed off our site to all but paying subscribers two years ago, 35,000 print newspaper subscribers have signed up to use the site. Almost 2,000 people are now paying either $8 per month or $60 per year for online-only subscriptions. That's more than $100,000 in truly new revenues generated by subscriptions."
On the paid vs. free scale, I stand boldly in the middle.
I pay for the Wall Street Journal online (because when I got the print version it always ended up in the parking lot). I sometimes dip into the paid archive of the New York Times. I just bought an article on organizational culture from the Harvard Business Review for six bucks.
I wouldn't' pay, though, to read the Albuquerque Journal. If it broke a big story that interested me, the AP or someone else would pick it up and I could read it for free soon enough.
But Donn Friedman doesn't want me for a reader (not that he wouldn't take my $8 if I offered it). He want Albuquerquens … uh, New Mexicans. He writes:
"Many pundits - including Borrell Associates analyst Peter Krasilovsky - say closing off your news site to all but paying readers is a formula for failure. Unless. Unless you happen to be the sole provider of local news in a remote place, like Spokane or Albuquerque." (Emphasis added.)
In other words, paid doesn't work - and by that I mean generate sufficient traffic, not revenue, because audience is the biggest revenue driver - unless the what's being sold is unique. The Wall Street Journal is unique. The Albuquerque Journal? Also unique. It dominates New Mexico's print media. Today's report from Iraq? Not unique.
As I've said before [ Read: Newspapers Disrupted ], new media is a disruptive technology to newspapers and the correct response by them is to explore techniques that preserve audience, and therefore influence and thus relevance, rather than seeking short-term financial gain.
As Krasilovsky says: "Paid content is a great way to make more money, but the real money is in advertising and marketing, don't ever forget it."
Nonetheless, I believe other papers will attempt to replicate, on their own lesser scales, the Wall Street Journal's success at broadening its ad base with online readers. Why wouldn't they? It seems like free money.
Friedman, though, even as a paid-content advocate, points out that the process is not easy and that challenges range from cultural to technical to financial. He summarizes several paid content models, most of them tiered to allow some free access, which I think is the smarter way to go.
The Wall Street Journal allows free access to some stories and to its Opinion Journal. It understands that branding and audience are as important as revenue, and, in fact, the latter cannot flow without the former.
I hope publishers don't forget the lesson in coming days when they ask their site managers: Why aren't we charging for all this?
Newsday Inclusion of Web Subscribers Sparks Newspaper Circulation Debate
Donn Friedman From Free to Fee in 10 Easy Steps
Peter Krasilovsky Newspapers Want to Charge for Content, but Will Readers Pay?
I feel like I'm too young to have my contemporaries dropping dead. Just a few days ago, Matt Beer died in Cambodia at age 50 and today I found out that Bobbie Hess, a former Examiner colleague, died over the weekend. She was 58.
Bobbie had a huge heart and deserved better. Here's her obit in the San Francisco Chronicle, where she worked after the Examiner merged with the Chron. She was everything her colleagues say she was -- smart, capable, caring, opinionated.
The Cubs were her only weakness. They say she died of pneumonia, but you've got to think that the Marlins and Game 7 took its toll.
Jeffrey Rodack, managing editor of the Globe, which printed the name and leggy prom photo of Kobe Bryant's accuser, responds to a column by Poynter faculty member Kelly McBride, who urged newspapers to not "follow the Globe," with his own Poynter column, which lambastes newspaper editors for applying 1950s morality to 2003 news gathering.
I'm not so sure about that and I've already had my say on this case, arguing here against the virtual "blue dot" and agreeing here with Geneva Overholser, who says "In the crime of rape, it is time we named the accuser as well as the accused."
Rodack's outrage at the timidity of mainstream journalists might be more persuasive were it not the for the unabashed avarice of his and other check-out counter tabs, but his column does deliver, as any tabloid should, a good gotcha paragraph.
He catches McBride inadvertently convicting Bryant with this statement:
"There is still no justification for journalists to deviate from the standard practice of granting this particular woman anonymity along with millions of other rape victims."
"Other rape victims?" says Rodack. "… She is not -- at least for now. She is someone accusing a man of rape …"
He's right on that one. Bryant is a suspect in a sexual assault case. And, as Bill Walsh, copy chief of the Washington Post's national desk says on his editing blog, The Slot, "Suspect means "person suspected of committing a crime" in English, even if it means "criminal" to the police (if you're into that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing, it's best not to think too much about that)."
Yeah, I'm into that innocent-until-proven-guilty thing.
Christopher Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, suggests newspapers include icons with stories based on anonymous sources so readers can understand the motivations of those leaking the information, most of which are "personal or political gain."
"Every such story," says Hanson in a piece in the Baltimore Sun, "would come with a graphic icon of a leaking water tap" and key symbol that identified the leaker's "self-serving motives." Hanson suggests:
Knife -- Warning: The purpose of this leak is to hurt or destroy the source's political enemy. (Mr. Novak's CIA agent disclosure needed such an icon.)
Pointing finger -- Warning: The source is attempting to shift blame to someone else. (This icon would have been suitable for the rush-to-war leaks cited above.)
Blowfish -- Warning: The anonymous source is puffing up himself or his boss. Be skeptical. (This icon should be used for virtually every anecdote leaked from the White House about a president at work.)
Balloon -- Warning: trial balloon. If the proposed change in policy described in this story draws boos, it will be disowned by the administration as a figment of the reporter's imagination.
Andrew Cline, who pointed to Hanson, comments correctly that "reporters do understand the intentions listed above. Protests to the contrary are merely absurd."
Anonymous sources are the bane of credible journalism. The inability to verify the identify, and therefore the political affiliation, background and contextual information, of a source adds to public distrust of journalism and fuels the self-serving criticism leveled against the news media by both progressives and conservatives, each of whom use the anonymity of the news for their own purposes.
As Jack Shafer wrote recently in Slate: "I trust all leakers and anonymous sources - I trust them to give a selective account that will benefit them, one that pleases their patrons and screws their enemies."
Of course, anonymity has a role in journalism, but a limited one. Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the Oregonian and president of ASNE, remarked during a Poynter Institute discussion on attribution:
"The anonymous source is a tool like any tool. But it tends to be overused. … we don't use anonymous sources unless there's no other way to get the story in the paper and the story is of such compelling public interest that we must get it in the paper. If the mayor was embezzling and we had multiple (anonymous) sources, we would do it."
This is not a new issue. Accuracy and credibility are two key reasons behind public mistrust, and therefore increasing non-use, of newspapers. Christine Urban, a newspaper consultant who studies credibility issues, told an ASNE meeting in 1999: "Seventy-some percent of the people are concerned with the credibility of the story when they see us do a 'sources says.'"
"Now, please, the public is not as smart as you. They don't have 10 Ph.D.s and 52 masters, or whatever we declared was the educational profile here, but they do have a lot of common sense. And common sense says that you have to be skeptical about anything, so there is a healthy degree of looking at this and saying, well, if the only source they have is unidentified, maybe the story isn't true. We asked them what should newspapers do if it was impossible to get anybody to go on the record. The options we offered them were run the story with the quotes, not run the story at all, and then, of course, some people were unconcerned with the issue. Forty-five percent of the public says don't run the story at all if all you have is an unidentified source, the anonymous source. … One of the guys in the focus group asked, "When a newspaper uses anonymous sources does that mean they don't know who it is?" I wonder how close he is to the truth."
One thing is true: A journalist's duty is to inform and he's not upholding that duty, not truly informing, when he's not telling the reader who is feeding him the news.
Newspaper readership remained flat during the last six months, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation's semi-annual report on the industry.
Here are some highlights:
New Yorkers are loving their tabloids. The Post added 10.6 percent more readers (at 25 cents each) and the Daily News added 2.1 percent. (The Times grew by 0.5 percent).
The Washington Post and L.A. Times each lost circulation.
The California recall and election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor "failed to translate into significant gains for any metro daily," according to Editor & Publisher. [ Read: Shouting into the Wind ]
The Wall Street Journal consolidated its paid online readership (686,000) into its print base for a combined circulation of 2 million.
Industrywide, the New York Times reported, that average daily circulation was 48.9 million, 0.2 percent more than a year ago. The Sunday average of 53.8 million was done 0.4 percent.
UPDATE: Tom Mangan has a nifty chart up of the top 20 papers.
Don't read Frank Rich's column in the Times if you want to drink from journalism's half-full glass. His is mostly empty.
Rich laments the ethical lapses of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass and the "celebrity culture that no longer values truth more than hype," as ex-Post reporter Carl Bernstein describes the illness that he says has infected daily journalism.
These sins, though, says Rich, are "relative misdemeanors" compared to those committed by reporters who "cozied up to Saddam Hussein," as Times' reporter John Burns accused some colleagues in Iraq of doing, or of CNN, which its own correspondent Christiane Amanpour charged, in Rich's words, with "muzzling itself during the war in Iraq and not asking 'enough questions, for instance, about weapons of mass destruction.'"
Tainted by these transgressions and others, says Rich, journalism suffers and public credibility sags even further, falling to the level that Lenny Briscoe, the sardonic detective on the ubiquitous "Law and Order" quips during an episode featuring a Blairsian character writing for a fictional New York paper: "You guys are rising to the top of America's most despised list." Says Rich:
"The public, like Lennie Briscoe … gets the drift. It sees too many reporters showboating Geraldo-style on camera, whether on 'K Street' or in the middle of hurricanes, catastrophic fires and wars. They see a famous columnist reveal the name of a C.I.A. agent and never say he's sorry. They see news media less preoccupied with the news than with boosting their own status in the entertainment firmament that now literally owns most of them."
I don't disagree, but Rich's view of journalists and the media is myopic, compressed into that narrow (and, yes, influential) tunnel that extends from Times Square to Dupont Circle. He needs a broader view.
Not all reporters showboat. Few concern themselves with entertainment firmament. Fewer still concoct stories. Most work on mid-sized or smaller newspapers and must deal with the daily realities of journalism - short deadlines, tight newsholes, lousy pay and uninspired leadership.
Their sin, if we choose to find them guilty of something, is not higher ambition but lowered expectation, the acceptance of "good enough" in place of the demand for excellence.
Most journalists do want more. They care about quality, about good journalism, about the responsibilities of a free press in a civic society, but in too many newsrooms, even those with the best intentions, these values remain unarticulated, and, therefore, unattained.
Unlike Rich, I don't deplore the culture of celebrity. Celebrities by their very nature - those who are celebrated - are of public interest. Gossip has always been part of news. There is room for it under the journalism umbrella, as there is for news about food and cars and sports and fashion and other things that are not "serious journalism."
No, what I care about and what journalists doing, as Bernstein told Rich, the "not very glamorous, hard-slogging reporting" care about is the sustainability of a newsroom environment that values and supports quality journalism. Let us not worry that The Globe and Bonnie Fuller are printing photos of Kobe Bryant's accuser. Let's concern ourselves instead with why millions of Americans find their local newspapers irrelevant to their daily lives.
You want to talk about sins? Here's one: The erosion of value-driven leadership in the news industry. Good journalism requires passion and demands obsession. It flourishes when fed these characteristics and wilts when denied them. Focused leadership works (here is the audience, these are our values, go get the stories); diffused decision-making does not (we're urban, we're suburban, we want to younger readers, we don't want to lose older readers).
Celebrity journalism is a cross-over hit from the tab to mainstream press because the mainstream is confused and lost and lacking direction. It's easy to fill that void with pictures of pouty lips and exposed navels and stories about indicted superstars and missing teenage girls.
Good journalism is not easy. It's hard. It does involve a lot of slogging. But it's worth it. It informs the electorate. It helps preserves democracy. It makes those who doing feel good about themselves. That's the message we need to be sending.
Frank Rich So Much for 'The Front Page'