Putting bite back in newspapers
Journalistic purists winced yesterday when the New York Times reported that coverage in the Wall Street Journal has taken a partisan turn since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper two years ago.
Although the top editor of the Journal dutifully denied the accusation, no one should be shocked at the idea that the Aussie-born proprietor of the Fox News Network might be putting a bit of english on his coverage.
While the conventional reaction is to say Murdoch is out of line, he may be on to something. Given the wobbly economics of the media today, conscientiously opinionated coverage may be the tonic that many newspapers and other news outlets need to revive reader interest and revenues.
News with an attitude is hardly the exclusive domain of News Corp. From the early days of the republic through well into the modern era, the annals of the American press are rich with tales of publishers who were far more partisan and politically manipulative than Murdoch.
In the interests of tossing a potentially unwelcome ingredient into the roiling stew over the future of journalism, I’d like us to consider for a moment whether a more outspoken, less diffident, more opinionated and less dreary press might be welcomed by journalists and readers alike.
While I am not arguing that journalists go back to the days when newsmen were employed as bullies and shills by self-dealing publishers, I am suggesting that it may be time for journalists to shift out of neutral in order to start calling things forthrightly the way they ought to be called.
Opinionated journalism flies in the face of the cherished canon of “objectivity,” the ephemeral and often unattainable construct that publishers adopted around the middle of the last century when spirited, multi-newspaper competition ended in most cities. Objective reporting enabled the sole surviving publisher in a market to make the most of his monopoly position by offending the fewest number of readers and advertisers.
For several decades, the doctrine of objectivity served the public and publishers well. But down-the-middle journalism looks wimpy in the Internet era. One way newspapers can regain their competitiveness is to leverage the discipline of traditional reporting by asserting themselves more affirmatively and unambiguously than most have done for the last few generations.
Before the purists rise up to denounce me, I would like to note that I long ago established my bona fides as one of your number.
When Murdoch bought the Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, several dozen of my colleagues and I quit on the spot after the new management said they were going to steer our beloved paper down-market and to the right. Most of us resigned with no immediate prospects at hand, though almost everyone eventually landed just fine.
So, I feel the pain of the anonymous Wall Street Journal staffers who told David Carr in yesterday’s New York Times that Murdoch’s editors have been putting an unwelcome partisan spin on headlines and stories – a charge that managing editor Robert Thomson heatedly denied.
But we live in a different time than we did 25 years ago. The competition facing newspapers is fierce and the financial situation facing most of them is dire. In some cases, nothing less than survival is at stake.
There’s not much question that a bit of editorial attitude – OK, a lot of editorial attitude – has been good for business at News Corp. To pick one prominent example, the journalistically unencumbered fulminations at Fox News have blown the doors off the other cable talkers.
The prime-time audience of nearly 2.4 million viewers at Fox last Monday was roughly four times greater than each of the 734,000 viewers at Headline News, 693,000 viewers at MSNBC and 623,000 viewers at CNN, according to the website TV by the Numbers. In other words, Fox outpulled all three competitors combined.
Most modern journalists, like the salami makers at Hebrew National, like to think they answer to a higher authority than Mammon. And, lest you have any doubt, I think they should.
But the first business of a newspaper is to stay in business. If that means responsively and constructively amping up the attitude, then I am all for it.
You got a problem with that?