Let the sun shine

Thank you, Eric N., for introducing me to Jon Talton’s Rogue Columnist. His rant on “What’s really wrong with newspapers” treats the newspaper biz the way a real reporter would if he didn’t already work for the newspaper biz. He follows the money.

I recommend the entire piece including — maybe even especially — those bits that bite the hand that feeds me personally. Talton’s critique of the way shareholder’s demands for ever-increasing profits have triumphed over the needs of readers and the demands of the craft are particularly apt when he applies them to the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

That chain signs my paycheck, so let’s refer to it here as “Grommett.” Notice I said “signs my paycheck” and not, “I work for Grommett.” That’s not how the job works or what it requires. If you think of yourself as working for Grommett or for any other publisher then you’re not going to do that job well. If you work for a newspaper, you work for the readers of that newspaper, and you serve them best by following the standards of the craft that exist independent of the particular policies or ideologies of any given publisher. Ideally, of course, there wouldn’t be any conflict between working for the readers and working for your publisher, but the newspaper biz is far from ideal.

Talton highlights one of my particular pet peeves:

The simple creed of “get a great story and put it in the newspaper (or online)” went away. For example, experienced police reporters went away — even though it’s clear that well-done cop stories draw readers. In their place was a 21-year-old taking dictation from a police public-affairs announcement.

The police briefs are one of the most-read stories every day on our paper’s Web site (almost rivaling the obits some days). Yet if you were to look at our site on Sunday or Monday morning, you’d find at most one or two items in that section. This is not because there is no crime on Saturday night. The criminals do not take weekends off, but the PIOs — the official police public information officers — do. So sometime this afternoon all those PIOs will return to their desks and send forth a volley of faxes and e-mails detailing the weekend’s events and thus our Tuesday police briefs will be overflowing with “news” that is two or three days old.

Receiving all those faxes and e-mails and rewriting them as news items is similar to the grade-school exercise of writing research reports based on a single entry from the World Book Encyclopedia. Working the police beat for our paper* would be excellent preparation for becoming a White House correspondent. Wait for the official to give the official word. The official will tell you what the news is and you can write it down. But be sure to use proper spelling and grammar — you’re a professional journalist, after all.

Talton’s critique is more diagnostic than prescriptive, so let me point somewhat in the direction of a cure: Let the sun shine. More transparency wouldn’t be a magic bullet, but it would help serve readers and it would help readers serve newspapers by providing more specific, and therefore more constructive, feedback. (The most common form of reader feedback, currently, is not reading newspapers. In response to this, newspapers blindly try to win them back, often by doing more of what drove them away to begin with.)

Here’s the sort of thing I have in mind: Blog the 4 o’clock budget meeting. You’ve likely seen such meetings portrayed on The Wire or Lou Grant or in All the President’s Men. These are the big daily meetings — usually around 4 p.m. for morning papers — where all the section editors meet to share what they’ve got for the next day’s paper and to figure out where it’s all going to go and what’s missing and how they’re going to fill in the gaps. This is, in other words, the meeting at which newspapers decide what they think is really important.

The decisions made at such meetings shape what is and isn’t deemed “news,” and that in turn shapes our civic and national discourse. What goes on A1 and what gets left out? Britney or Baghdad? Lacey or the local school board? Chondra or Khandahar? Judy Miller’s unsourced assertions or Walter Pincus’ painstakingly detailed debunking? Such decisions are made based on news judgment, on more logistical questions (is there good art?), and on hunches — sometimes accurate, sometimes baseless — about what the small group of gathered editors thinks readers are looking for.

That decision-making process should be transparent. The public has a right to see their sausage being made. Letting them see behind the curtain might make them better appreciate and understand the choices facing and the choices made by newspapers everyday. At the very least, such transparency would foster the idea that newspapers are in the business of providing the public access to information rather than in the business of selectively standing between them and what they want and need to know.

The highlights and lowlights and sidelights of every newspaper’s 4 o’clock budget meeting should be blogged.

The odds of this ever actually happening, anywhere, are huge. The valid reasons why this couldn’t happen are nonexistent.

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* I should note that we also have some excellent reporters who actually report while working our police beat — leaving the building and everything. But this is not required, expected or commended by Grommett.

  • JessicaR

    Could someone post the link to Fred’s piece on his paper’s NotRedeye spinoff? Thanks.

  • Jim
  • Richard Hershberger

    Full disclosure: I have never lived in an area where I could listen to Pacifica Radio regularly, and I haven’t heard it even sporadically since the elder Bush administration. So I can only speculate what it is like now. But I recall listening to a round table discussion on the topic “Should President Bush [the elder] be impeached?” There was a lively debate with a range of viewpoints, but what struck me was that nowhere did anyone raise the question “For what?” The entire discussion was of politics. There was no sense that impeachment has anything to do with actual high crimes or misdemenours.
    At the time I thought the whole thing hilarious. No president had been impeached since Andrew Johnson, and the idea seemed ridiculous. The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Republicans let the yahoos run the party.
    The bigger point is that Pacifica Radio serves to put the lie to the idea that FOX News is the balance to CNN. CNN is what in my youth we called “center right”. The big lie is that this is radical left. Some exposure to real leftist can only help to broaden peoples’ perspective. This isn’t to say that they are necessarily the equivalent in tone or willingness to make shit up, but the opposite of “right” is “left”, not “center”.

  • inge

    Tonio, regarding reviewers vs. critics:
    No different words in German, though the difference you describe might be translated as “movie critics” vs. “culture critics”. But I have found the “OMG must seem hip in front of my peers” on all levels. Watching the collective brain implosion in major newspapers about Harry Potter and LotR was kind of entertaining, if exasperating. Some critics/reviewers wrote several thousand words, went from movie critique to culture critique quite smoothly and proved beyond all doubt that not only did they lack clue, they lacked an IMDb link to get their basic data right.

  • Richard Hershberger

    “Watching the collective brain implosion in major newspapers about Harry Potter and LotR was kind of entertaining, if exasperating.”
    The Lord of the Rings has a long tradition of this. The books were published some fifty years ago and largely dismissed by the critics. Some outfit put out a 100 greatest books of the 20th century around 1998 (apparently with no sense of irony) which rather pointedly omitted LotR.
    It is a point of awkwardness in this circle that LotR is widely read a half century after publication and the single greatest influence in genre fantasy. But they are starting to crack: longevity inevitably promotes a book to “Literature” status.

  • Tonio

    But I have found the “OMG must seem hip in front of my peers” on all levels.
    That’s why I prized Kael’s pieces, because she didn’t have that compulsion. She often criticized her colleagues for rushing like lemmings to embraced flawed films.
    Kael on Kubrick
    When I pass a newsstand and see the saintly, bearded, intellectual Kubrick on the cover of Saturday Review, I wonder: Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex’s voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can’t wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn’t show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it’s the purest exploitation. Yet this film lusts for greatness…
    Watching the collective brain implosion in major newspapers about Harry Potter and LotR was kind of entertaining, if exasperating.
    Do you mean they were blindingly dismissing the films because they were fantasy, or that they were blindingly embracing the films because they didn’t want to seem out of touch with pop culture?

  • McJulie

    Hmmm, I don’t know what strident pants are, but I suspect I would like a reporter who wore them. But, since Pacifica is on the radio, how do you even know she’s wearing pants at all?
    She’s not. In many circles she’s known as Amy “no pants” Goodman.
    But I think it is important to realize that, even though there are some left-wingers out there (Maher, Al Franken, Michael Moore), whose hate-on for Bush and Republicans in general (I mean, I doubt Bush is responsible for everything bad that happens in the world.) makes them sound deranged
    EYOOOGAH! Right wing talking point alert! “Bush Derangement Syndrome” reference detected!
    I think Bush is possibly the worst president we’ve ever had, and I think this because of his exceedingly poor job performance.
    Plus, I don’t like him personally. He seems empty, arrogant, fake, and self-centered to the point of pathology.
    I also don’t consider myself to be deranged, nor do I consider those who share my opinion to be deranged. My anger at Bush has a real cause — his behavior as president — and I think putting it down as some kind of “derangement,” as if I were ranting about the alien broadcasts to my fillings that won’t let me sleep, is simply an attempt to trivialize the cause of my Bush-hatred. As if I, as an American, couldn’t *possibly* have a *real* reason to hate him.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Praline

    Similarly ‘hate-on’. Sometimes people hate people, and have reasons for doing so. Hatred can be pathological, but it can also be an instinctive response to the hateful. In Bush’s case, it’s the latter.

  • Tonio

    I saw “Bowling for Columbine” recently and I’m conflicted about Michael Moore. On one hand, I agree with him most of the time, and I appreciate him raising points that are often ignored in the media chatter. On the other, the chronologies in his movies are not always accurate. I disagree with his tactic of using ordinary people as proxies for his targets, asking them leading questions to humiliate them on film.
    This may be wishful thinking, but whenever any prominent person expresses an overall political stance that jibes with my own, I prefer that the person not have any unpleasant traits that would give the other side any basis for characterizing everyone on my side as having those traits. I find it maddening that so many people view Fred Phelps as a typical Christian or Madelyn Murray O’Hair as a typical atheist or Al Sharpton as a typical black leader.

  • Jim

    McJulie and Praline,
    Don’t hate your enemies, it clouds your judgment. Err, rather, Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Yeah, that’s the quote I wanted.
    What I was actually arguing there, if you read the whole post, was that hate as an emotion was more of a problem for the Republicans than the Democrats.
    Bush is indeed the worst President we ever had. No “possibly” about it. And “Bush Derangement Syndrome” is pretty rich coming from Republicans, who pretty much self-immolated during the Clinton impeachment. The general problem with arguments from hatred in the public discourse is that they fail to convince. I would cite those three gentlemen I mentioned as examples of that. But if you can segregate your hatred for Bush from the rational part of your brain, good for you.

  • http://jesurgislac.greatestjournal.com Jesurgislac

    jim: The general problem with arguments from hatred in the public discourse is that they fail to convince.
    Especially when you point, go “Look at all those evil, rotten, stupid things Bush has done, of course I hate him for it!” and the person you are talking to blinks and goes “What things?”

  • inge

    Tonio: Do you mean they were blindingly dismissing the films because they were fantasy, or that they were blindingly embracing the films because they didn’t want to seem out of touch with pop culture?
    They were claiming that Jackson was the first ever to make a movie of LotR, did a pop psychology analysis of Tolkien based on the cover of the 5th German edition of Carpenter’s biography, mixed up dates, claimed that HP was popular because of 9/11, said that kids reading HP were like kids taking drugs, and said that by [one of] Freud’s definition of religion (makes stupid adults out of bright children, IIRC, but it’s been a while) Genre literature was the religion of today, ranted against memorizing trivia since it damaged the ability to memorize phone numbers, claimed that SF was better than Fantasy because it could calm existiential fears (double WTF), claimed that Tolkien’s “sub-creation” was the sin of Lucifer, that Tolkien was crazy but managed not to get caught by pretending not to believe his own stories, and used the new German tranlation (which for some reason unknown to menkind the publisher forced) to demonstrate that Tolkien lacked an ear for language. Of course, some of the critics started with noting that they had only given the books in question a cursory read because they were afraid of getting genre cooties.
    Note, all that in some of the most respectable center-left-liberal newspapers, the ones who regulary have 1000+ word reviews on books and movies and have professional staff and well-known guest authors for their “Culture” section.
    I have been around far too many of these folks during my childhood and teenage years. My relationship to capital-L Literature has never recovered.

  • Bugmaster

    claimed that HP was popular because of 9/11, said that kids reading HP were like kids taking drugs, and said that by [one of] Freud’s definition of religion (makes stupid adults out of bright children, IIRC, but it’s been a while) Genre literature was the religion of today, ranted against memorizing trivia since it damaged the ability to memorize phone numbers…

    And yet, they failed to address the key question: do fiction book writers eat babies with ketchup, or with barbecue sauce ? Typical liberal shenanigans, always dodging the issue…

  • http://jesurgislac.greatestjournal.com Jesurgislac

    do fiction book writers eat babies with ketchup, or with barbecue sauce?
    Let’s ask Praline.

  • http://mikailborg.livejournal.com/ MikhailBorg

    Fanfic writers use chocolate syrup. Unless that’s just me…

  • inge

    Fanfic writers use chocolate syrup.
    With a pinch of chili powder.

  • Jenny Islander

    When I read the newspaper, I want to see an investigation into the mayor’s budget (and any unexpected disappearance of parts thereof). I want to know if increased education spending has had any effect on local colleges. I want to follow a reporter as he drills deeper and deeper into the chain of shell corporations which is ultimately responsible for polluting my river. And I also want to know what is happening in the world, right now, and how it’s likely to affect me in my hometown, throughout the coming months.
    Well, of course. I just tend to skip that type of story in my local paper unless it regards an issue I may be expected to vote on. Recent reportage has included the endless wrangling over whether and where to replace our decrepit high school swimming pool, which is the only public pool in town, and the history of assorted aborted plans regarding it in the past 20 years; the creeping plague of invasive species, why it hasn’t been noticed in Alaska until recently, and how a shipment of hornet-infested Christmas trees could be diverted from Hawaii to Alaska without being burned on arrival; prospects for value-added pink salmon products; and an attempt to amend a rule regarding borough assemblypersons’ attendance requirements that turned out to be largely personal animus between two assemblyfolks. (It helps to be local when reading these stores because if you didn’t live here, you wouldn’t know that–for instance–the assemblyman introducing the amendment is a well-known curmudgeon with a vengeful streak.)
    A couple of years ago, the paper celebrated its 60th anniversary by reprinting articles from the very first issues in their own column for the entire year. I believe that the first complaints about failure to do their jobs came three weeks after the first city councilmembers were elected. It was a fun read.

  • Tonio

    Inge, were those critics American ones or German ones? If it’s the latter, is there a strong German prejudice against fantasy literature?
    That genre-cooties hypochondria that you mentioned doesn’t seem to affect many American critics these days. The last example I saw was in Time’s review of the first Star Trek movie, which dismissed the original series’ “cult vogue among the half-educated.”

  • inge

    Tonio, German ones. And it’s a prejudice against speculative literature in general and against fantasy in particular. Or against anything entertaining and/or fun, maybe. Imagine everything Shippey writes about the reception of LotR in England, squared. “Good” literature, we learned in school, was when you hated it: it had to deal with deep, socially relevant topics in a serious, socially relevant way, and must not end happy because otherwise it was caving in to the lower instincts of the reader. Speculative literature’s refusal to be socially relevant in a way that the critics understood made it cheap escapism, opium for the masses and an instrument of oppression. (Dystopias were OK, though, unless they were written by genre writers, and were considered to make good childrens’ books.)
    By the late 90s I had chalked it up to a generational issue, which is why the LotR/HP critiques felt like an out of control time machine passing by.
    Take what I say with a grain of salt, please, I grew up in an environment where reading the “right” books was an important class marker, and I’m still angry.


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