Off Message March 2007

Toot, Toot

As the Walter Reed story shows, in the solar system of journalism, newspapers are the sun.

What the newspaper industry needs right now is a good publicist. Not a "vice president for public relations" or a "spokesperson" who puts out press releases and waits for phone calls. I mean a hard-core, hard-charging publicist like the ones celebrities employ to craft the image and keep the "brand" humming.

True, this would be a bit hypocritical, given that every journalist worthy of the name loathes flackery. But watching the way this flailing business draws bad news and fails to get credit for the great stuff it does, I wish they'd let a serious operator show them how the game is played. Before it's over.

When newspapers have a bad week (that is, almost every week), the world hears all about it. This is how Jayson Blair and Judith Miller became household names. This is why the ongoing woes of the Los Angeles Times are legend. If it's downbeat and it's about newspapers, it's a story. Even quarterly earnings reports, those soporific rituals, have become a regular source of bad press for the press, as profit and circulation numbers drift relentlessly down.

Warren Buffet, in his annual letter to his company's shareholders last week, said, "Fundamentals are definitely eroding in the newspaper industry," and "the skid will almost certainly continue." Who delivered this news? "Buffett Pessimistic About Newspapers," reported the newspaper on whose board Buffett happens to sit, The Washington Post. The headline might as well have said: "SELL OUR STOCK."

In fact, this is as it should be. It would be wrong and stupid for the industry to try to conceal its own bad news, which is authentically bad and truly newsy. Reporting one's own woes is hard and admirable (even if you tend to do it on page D5).

But what about the good news? Even as Buffett was spreading gloom, The Post was turning Washington upside down with its Walter Reed Army Medical Center story. I won't rehash the details of that story because you know them. And that's the point: What else but a trusted big-city newspaper could have pulled off that story—invested the resources, taken the time to report it out, and given it so much altitude, so quickly?

A magazine? None can match the heft of an elite daily's front page. A TV network? They don't set the agenda the way newspapers do. An energetic blogger? A lone podcaster? Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert? No, no, no, and no.

In fact, other news outlets were reporting various pieces of the broader military and veterans' health care story before The Post got to Walter Reed. Some members of Congress, people with actual political power, were already outraged over the conditions. But it took a great broadsheet to bring this baby home.

Fine, you say, but this story has been trumpeted to the skies. The Post is getting plaudits galore, the Pulitzers are already penciled in.

Yes, but this story is known in a very particular way, as a scoop unearthed by two talented reporters, Dana Priest and Anne Hull, at one paper. The horn that nobody is tooting is that this is exactly what newspapers—plural—in a democracy do, better and more often than anyone else. This isn't just a story about war and medical care. It's a reminder that in the solar system of journalism, newspapers are the sun, the source of energy around which everything else revolves. And that's amazing material—a publicist's dream.

In January, the Newspaper Association of America announced it was launching a new marketing campaign. Sample copy: "Wait till you see what's in tomorrow's newspaper.... It's not the paper you grew up with. America's newspapers are now delivering their product on Web sites, podcasts, and e-mails." The tagline: "Newspaper. The Multi-Medium."

Catchy, huh? Forget the journalism; it's all about media platforms. Here's another idea: Big picture of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, with an inset photo of the wounded Iraq veterans who spilled their horror stories on Capitol Hill this week. Below, in an enormous bold red letters: "WHO GOT THIS STORY? A NEWSPAPER, THAT'S WHO."

As every good flack knows, public image is a precious thing. Use it or lose it.

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