July 26, 2010


A lot of debate is going on about the future of print newspapers. People aren’t reading them as much anymore and revenues are down. The electronic media is blamed because TV and online news are free. Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul, wants to change that with a “pay for view” online version of some of his newspapers and others publishers are standing in the wings to see if it works.

I have no idea whether it will succeed or not but the diminished readership for the print newspaper may have as much to do with poor quality as with media competition. A laxity has crept into newspaper reporting. It’s a cliché to observe that investigative journalism is all but gone. We know why. Assigning reporters to do intensive research is costly and may not produce a payload like Watergate. To satisfy shareholders, the bottom line in publishing has taken precedence over the headline.

The trend is to use canned news services like Reuters and the Associated Press. I read one story a while ago that took this trend to a ridiculous extreme. One paper was advertising in India for reporters. Their job would be to read releases from these wire services and repackage them according to local interests. In other words, readers in Pocatello, Idaho and Fargo, North Dakota could look forward to receiving rehashed material selected for them from places like Bombay or Calcutta.

I don’t know if the idea got off the ground but it struck me that providing the American people with timely and accurate information isn’t the goal of journalism anymore, if it ever was. News is a teaser to showcase advertisement. I understand the business angle. A paper can’t exist without revenue. But I would argue there has to be a decent product in order to make a sale. A newspaper that exists largely for the benefit of advertisers has lost its way. What’s more, I would remind the 4th Estate that they have waged vigorous lawsuits in their defense by arguing that protection of its First Amendment rights is vital to a healthy democracy.

There are occasions when the press does serve the public. A recent documentary on the Pentagon Papers reveals Dan Ellsberg first offered certain members of the US Senate material which proved that presidents from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon had lied to the country about its involvement in the Vietnam War. None of these senators would touch the information. They considered it too incendiary.  The New York Times and the Washington Post felt otherwise and when the same material was offered to them, they broke the story. It was a shining hour for journalists and I salute them.

The day to-day workings of a newspaper aren’t so dramatic, however. Making profits is the name of the game particularly as most of them have gone public and they must satisfy shareholders. The assumption that dominates the industry is that articles have to be dumbed down to attract readers. Stories have become shorter and headlines eye popping. Sometimes there’s no clear connection between the two. Also, sensational details rise to the first paragraph while Who, What, When, Where, Why – vital information if not sexy—is relegated to the nether paragraphs. This laxity confirms that newspapers have chosen to make informing the public secondary to disseminating information about grocery specials. We get that. We really do, but some of us balk at being asked to pay for the shift.

To Rupert Murdoch and the rest of the publishers who wring their hands over the fate of the newspaper business, I remind them of the effects of greed and shoddy workmanship on the American automobile industry. They learned from their mistakes. Get your priorities straight and like Ford, you might enjoy a turn around.