Dispatch January 2009

When No News Is Bad News

A former managing editor of The Chicago Tribune probes the collapse of the newspaper industry and tries, mostly in vain, to find hope for the future of journalism.
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Newspaper penetration—the number of households looking at a paper—now amounts to less than 18 percent of the population, compared with 33 percent back in 1946. In its home market, The New York Times has a dismal 7 percent penetration. The New York Times Company, which, like the rest of the industry, used to reap tremendous profits, is one of the many publicly traded newspaper companies that have lost well over half their market value in the past two years. Just this past year, shareholders of publicly traded newspaper companies have lost 83 percent of their investments, according to Alan Mutter, an astute industry analyst, blogger and former newspaper city editor. Papers are throwing out employees almost weekly, cutting national and foreign bureaus if they have them, and slicing the actual size of the product, since newsprint is a huge cost. In some cases, entire newspapers are shutting down. Hearst Corporation is the latest to serve as executioner, announcing the likely demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if a buyer can’t be found.

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"You Spoke, We Listened"

The Chicago Tribune responds to reader critiques of its redesign. [File opens as a large PDF.]

As the seeming death spiral accelerates, a sense of desperation has led some to flashy redesigns aimed at attracting younger consumers. But little is working, and the diehard readers are left with a sense of getting less. All this helps explain an extraordinary Chicago Tribune admission in its own pages that a wholesale redesign had met with significant resistance (“You Spoke, We Listened”): reader complaints included “too many ads,” “too few stories,” “the paper is too loud,” “don’t jump stories to other sections,” “it’s too hard to find things” and “bring back my Business section.” This was soon followed by the announcement that the Tribune would begin to produce a tabloid version of its traditional broadsheet for single-copy sales (as opposed to home delivery), as if geometry could provide some salvation.

Meanwhile, websites are not obligated to spend money on newsprint, printing plants, or union drivers to drop their product at readers’ doorsteps. Yet they benefit from linking to all that work they’ve not done or paid a nickel for. And they supplement this borrowed reporting with user-generated content and material produced by freelancers who are paid a pittance or nothing at all. They’ve also opted for chat rooms and ongoing dialogues among their adherents—a laudable, democratic impulse, but one that often devolves into an unedited legitimization of stupidity and bigotry.

The websites’ revenue streams, despite their growing audiences, do not justify—at least in the minds of the executives who run them—spending on reporting and editing infrastructures. The corps of the Huffington Post, for example, consists of bloggers and columnists, including yours truly, working for free, or for what amounts to booze money. Yet the Huffington Post is now more popular than all but a tiny cadre of newspaper websites. Its achievement, like that of many websites, has been attracting distinct communities of people who talk with one another about a particular subject: politics, sports, parenting, and so on. Those people essentially become the site, and their involvement goes unpaid. Add to that a few blogs and a few stories and columns from the mainstream media and, bingo, you can have a successful site—especially if you have a marketing dynamo like Arianna Huffington.

This past presidential election also sadly seems to mark the death of newspapers as the prime influencers in presidential politics. The candidates quickly realized that the Internet and cable television were the first places to go to connect with voters—all the more so when there happened to be an avenue sympathetic to their agendas, or a social networking venue free from all that pesky editing and fact checking done by the old newspaper farts. In a constantly changing 24-hour news cycle, why wait for the daily paper to hit doorsteps the next morning?

Why should we care?

This matters because of the unique role journalism plays in a democracy. So much public information and official government knowledge depends on a private business model that is now failing. Journalism acknowledges and illuminates complexity, and at the same time prioritizes, helping us to evaluate the relative significance of developments playing out all around us. A very shrewd journalist-entrepreneur I know, Steve Brill, asks that one just imagine walking into a library and seeing the pages of all the books scattered on the floors and stairwells. To be sure, editors are human and subjectivity plays a role, but a newspaper places those pages—and thus the news—in some sensible order.

And, importantly, there’s a sense of social mission. Good journalism keeps public and private officials honest and helps citizens make thoughtful decisions. It does this by systematically gathering, processing, and checking relevant information, and by doing it with a spirit of independence. It’s how two previously unknown Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, put together the Watergate puzzle that forced the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. And as they pursued their investigation, they, like all good reporters, followed certain commonly accepted ethical norms: You don’t take money from the people you’re covering. You don’t bow to special interests or to the economic interests of your employer. You confirm and reconfirm the accuracy of assertions and supposed facts and quotes. As an old saying used to go at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a now-defunct training ground for decades of reporters, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

Journalism at its best succeeded because of an accumulation of trust on the public’s part over the past 60 or 70 years—a general sense, now sadly on a southerly trajectory, that the final product merited both inspection and confidence. There was value in a reporter gaining true expertise in a given area, winning the trust of individuals, and ultimately using that expertise and trust to cover and break stories of relevance to a community. And with the local paper always the biggest home for advertisers in town, there was money to justify maintaining large staffs and the infrastructure necessary to be comprehensive and precise.

Journalism’s role may be as straightforward as covering the town council, or the closing of a local store. But it also involves large-scale matters that set a national agenda and impart a shared sense of urgency or of shame. Good journalism brings a sense of coherence to our diverse, fragmented, nation. The president, the postman, the podiatrist, the policeman can all pick up the same paper and see the same analysis of what’s important.

Are there contemporary examples of this kind of indispensable journalism?

Absolutely. Most of you are probably familiar with The Washington Post’s series last year on the conditions faced by wounded servicemen at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Reporters Anne Hull and Dana Priest spent six months cultivating sources and doing old-fashioned gumshoe work to unveil the deplorable state of the facility’s outpatient care and the callousness of its bureaucracy. It was their labors and talent that resulted in a shamed Bush administration ordering sweeping change.

There are also examples at the Chicago Tribune. In the late ’90s, a team of reporters led by Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong led a disturbing investigation into the state of Illinois’ death penalty, revealing how many people had been wrongly convicted and were sitting on death row. Their landmark series inspired the governor to declare a moratorium on executions. (My wife, Cornelia Grumman, was also moved by their work and won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her editorials laying out how the system should be changed.)

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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