Tuesday, December 15, 2009

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?


Anonymous Mike Donatello said...

I got a good laugh from the whole discussion. As a WSJ reader for the last 27 years, my distinct impression is that -- outside the editorial pages -- the coverage has become far more slanted to the left. Perhaps the Journal is hiring laid-off socialists from other media? ;)

6:57 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

Really, there is no need to look into the "annals" of newspaper history to find slanted news, just read the LA Times, for example. The fact that it is slanted to the left instead of to the right does not change in the least that it is slanted.

Also, I totally disagree with this increasingly popular notion that newspapers should insert more attitude or opinion into their news articles. You need MORE hard news and LESS attitude. When you step into the opinion arena you step into what bloggers do best, and I think you know that when it comes to attitude and opinion, they leave newspapers in the dust. Switching from what you can do extremely well to attempting to compete in an area where you will get slaughtered (even more) strikes me as a death wish.

Bloggers and other op-ed people NEED the information the hard-news media can provide. Otherwise, what do they argue about? That is a big, fat niche that - hopefully - will someday be profitable again.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

Alan, you're not such a newsosaur after all.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Case Ernsting said...

I agree with Brad. More hard hitting facts from both angles will always get the discussion going. The "Gossip" style news that is picking up steam these days needs to end.

8:21 AM  
Blogger -30- said...

I'm reminded of what I've read about the original James and C.K. McClatchy, yes, the McClatchy's that founded the McClatchy chain today. They weren't partisan insofar as politics was concerned, infact they maintained an almost militant nonpartisanship far away from the party-driven publications of their day.

But they were anything but unopinionated. They, and their paper, spoke out vehmenently against anything they felt was counter to their community and they were notorious for it.

Isn't that the roll of the newspaper?

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the news orgs should do differently is remove the shackles that lead them to give equal weight to both sides of every argument. How is that helpful? They need to give both sides of every story then use research and sources to debunk and discredit those in the wrong.

Its probably half laziness that they don't.

Hard news and opinion can go hand in hand - it's called analysis and we should do more of it.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Carrie Brown said...

Agreed, and the research backs you up on this. I wrote a quick blog post backing you up on it (see link below), and there's more that I didn't have time to elaborate on.

Dr. Brown-Smith
University of Memphis.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Steve Collins said...

I agree that a little more bite would be far better than the whimpering we usually hear nowadays. Heck, taking an occasional chunk out of some pompous ass is probably good for democracy as well as the bottom line.
But part of the answer is not just to snarl more. It's also to point the way to solutions to the problems newspapers can delve into. That's not quite objective, but it is a necessity.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous ChuckL said...

Objectivity has always been a myth. Newspapers have always made subjective decisions about which stories to cover and where to place them in the newspaper. And editors and writers always have opinions in the background: who they interview, the questions they ask, the way they slant their stories. Objectivity is a nice ideal; it's just that it never really existed.

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Brian Steffens said...

I feel like I've read this before. Actually, I've heard it before -- more than 25 years ago. The "libertarian" Orange County Register was looking to go mainstream. They were part of the West Coast club when it came to earning money, but not so much when it came to journalistic reputation. So they tightened their belts, invested heavily in new leadership and staff, and did an impressive makeover.

We went "professional" and really gave the Los Angeles Times a major headache in the 80s.

A Texas-trained journalist, D.R. Segal, was a valued mentor to the family and the staff.

After we were well underway to remaking the paper, D.R. took the senior editors to lunch. He appreciated our efforts, but cautioned: (I'm paraphrasing here, since it's been more than 20 years and I may not have this as an exact quote) ...

You know, it's great the journalism you're doing, but watch that you don't become bland. Folks around here might have loved us or hated us, but they were compelled every morning to walk to the end of their driveway in their slippers and robe and wonder as they picked up the papper: "What did those SOBs say today?"

He was worried we were losing that "edge," or in your words, the "bite."

I fear we didn't listen close enough.

On another note, I disagree (I know, you're surprised) that the LA Times is biased, per se. Sure, I know some of the reporters-turned-columnists who might be thought of in that manner, but when I worked there, our mission was to hold local government and business accountable. You need not be conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat to buy into that.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Bruce Tomaso said...

Actually, there is nothing -- not a syllable -- in Thomson's statement that denies Carr's central thesis: That The Journal's top editors under Murdoch are tilting news coverage to the right.

Thomson complains about Carr's use of anonymous sources, complains that Carr talked to former Journal employees, characterizes some of Carr's assertions as "unsubstantiated" (without ever saying what those unsubstantiated assertions are), questions the motives and ethics of Carr and Bill Keller, and dismissively suggests that the only reason the piece was published in the first place is that The New York Times is afraid or envious (or both) of the "rise" of The Journal.

But Thomson never once denies (heatedly or otherwise) doing what the story says he and his second-in-command are doing: Putting their thumbs on the scale to tilt political coverage so as to make it more unfavorable to President Obama and other liberal leaders.

10:11 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

I saw the study and don't fully believe it -- as a reader of both the NYT and the WSJ, daily, now and for most of my professional life -- although neither paper is as well reported as it was 5 years ago.

But these are national papers and they have competition (from each other, to start).

Why would I go for slanted local coverage in a one newspaper town?

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NYT accuses the WSJ of being slanted. The pot has proclaimed the kettle is black!the Times' fawning coverage of all things liberal is legendary.

3:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least Sir Rupert is DOING SOMETHING, unlike other coupon-clipping publishers who are closeted in their offices counting their dwindling resources. Otis Chandler did a similar radical thing, breaking the LA Times from its conservative positions in the 1960's and leading the Times to a 1 million circulation behemoth. Rupert sees the same thing for the WSJ with a more conservative stand, I think.

5:59 AM  
Anonymous Patrick Martin said...

I agree with one part of the "inject Opinion" argument. Editorial page editors need to grow a set.
Two troubling trends -- increasing opinion in the news coverage and decreasing courage on the opinion page -- have murkied the waters and left American newspapers open to simultaneous bias/wimp charges.
As one poster said, "Let them know where you stand," but do it, and forcefully, on the editorial page. It's not rocket science.

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Dave Gorak said...

When it comes to covering this nation's illegal immigration crisis, most of the media long ago abandoned objectivity. Everytime I see a journalist who is identified by his/her newspaper as an "immigration reporter," my immediate thought is, "Uh-oh, another oxymoron." The immigration issue is very complex and has many aspects, but what part of the issue do these "immigration reporters" focus on nearly every time they sit down to write? Illegal aliens who are burdened with some sort of "plight" and are "forced to live in the shadows" and "a climate of fear" as they worry about their "families being torn apart" by our "broken immigration policy."

Take, for example the fact that while there are 25 million unemployed Americans (including the 10 million who have given up looking)having to compete with 8 million illegals who are being permitted to keep their jobs and a federal government that EVERY MONTH issues 125,000 work permits to foreign workers.

When was the last time you saw anything in print or on TV about those numbers? About the plight of our native-born workers, especially the working poor, who are affected by mass immigration?

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Brad nailed it, and Brian also makes a good point. If we do a better job of holding officials accountable for their performance, we'll be filling a vital need that can't be filled well by bloggers. This can be done with purposeful neutrality. The last thing we need is more partisanship in journalism.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Stan Spire said...

"You got a problem with that?"

I do have a problem with pseudo-journalism: slanted, unfair writing disguised as objective news. Being fair, upfront and accurate is more important than being "objective."

We have enough problems with idiots who think bloviators like Rush Limbaugh are journalists, not entertainers.

8:01 AM  
Anonymous French reader said...

I totally agree with the notion of 'opinionated' journalism. As long as it is labeled as such.
I am no longer able to read the NYT because of its supposedly 'neutral' stance when everything reeks of left-leaning liberal politics.
Yeah the WSJ is slanted to the right, but at least they're proud of it!
I like hard news, supported by facts, and salted with opinions.
In my opinion, it doesn't come any better.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Posed a potential solution to the publisher the other day - a forward-looking ad delivery solution. One part of his reaction interested me: Is this really doable? I think it is. Maybe they don't have the right people with the right technical chops trickling information up about what's possible with existing staff ... or perhaps what would be possible if they were to hire a programmer for projects.

Maybe it's a lack of confidence in home-grown technical solutions, since they lack those skills themselves. And maybe their top department heads do as well.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Roger Wilson said...

My biggest inspiration in this business was reading years ago the autobiography of William Allen White who cited the person from whom he bought the little paper that became his national platform in saying something to the effect of "Make your opinion public opinion." Ultimately we are in the business of moving minds.
Roger Wilson, www.conferencedepartment.com

9:56 AM  

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