Stop the Journalismisms!

The media business is chock full of platitudes, most of them wrong.

If there's any reason to be saddened by the long, humiliating death of the great American newspaper, it may be that we'll no longer have a treasure trove of tough-sounding catch phrases about the news biz. Where else but in the world of ink-stained wretches could you hear a rule of thumb as proudly meaningless as the late A.M. Rosenthal's "I don't care if you sleep with elephants, as long as you don't cover the circus"? What medium but a pulp paper could spin a straight-faced tautology—"All the news that's fit to print"—into a deathless slogan?

But is anybody paying attention to journalismisms anymore? Some of the greatest shoe-leather truisms are either untrue or widely ignored. As readers continue to flee newspapers, as fewer investors fall for tall tales about "exploding" Web traffic, let's take some time to rethink, or just remember, some of the choicest phrases:

This business is about more than the bottom line. Only decades of monopoly power in (still) relatively secure regional markets could have turned an economic absurdity into a universally believed truth—in this case, the alleged truism that good reporting gets done by people who can follow their noses while being shielded from pressure by advertisers, irate subscription cancelers, and the like. It would be more accurate to say that American reporters produce bad journalism because they're shielded from the economics of the business. You can hear a lot of talk in editorial meetings about whether a given topic has news value, has been covered too often in recent editions of the paper, or meets some standard of worthiness and moral uplift that is undefined but generally understood to be whatever The New York Times would find appropriate. What you won't hear is any consideration of whether anybody on Planet Earth would be interested in reading about it. After all, as one angry photojournalist told Tribune Company CEO Sam Zell early this year, readers are only interested in "pictures of puppy dogs."

That's yesterday's news
. Throughout most of the last 15 years, papers avoided the practice of examining Web traffic for guidance about which stories do and do not attract attention. Too bad: They might have learned a lot earlier that the bulk of traffic goes to stories that are more than a week old. In my experience at the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, stories three days old or older accounted for 80 percent to 90 percent of Web readership on a daily basis. Yet many papers would rather save nominal electronic storage costs by deleting or firewalling their old material than cultivate this source of already-paid-for ad revenue-and few, other than The New York Times, have taken much interest in exploiting the apparent reader interest in precedent, historical context, and all that other stuff papers otherwise congratulate themselves for providing.

When a reporter's mother tells him she loves him, he still checks the story out.
This chestnut from the days of fedoras and manual typewriters has an air of unsentimental fun and is a good indicator of the kind of macho self-glorification print journalists relish to this day. It's also patently false, based on the fiction that all sources are equally reliable or unreliable.

If it bleeds it leads. Would that this truism were actually true! With a notable foreign policy exception (see below), America's broadsheets are uninterested in putting violence on Page 1. They're not even keen on hyping robbery, graffiti, rape, or most other forms of bad behavior. The difficulty is not on the supply side, as most major metropolitan areas generate a murder every day or so. Nor, as Web traffic demonstrates, is it on the demand side. The market failure occurs in editorial departments. The most common pejorative you'll hear in a newsroom is not "boring," "pointless," or "undersourced," but "sleazy" (that is, "not our kind of journalism"). As readers fail to recognize their own difficult, often frightening experiences in the bland, process-oriented reporting, newspapers pay the price.

We need a Chinese wall between news and opinion.
The modern newspaper is a maze of bright-line distinctions, walls of separation, and lawsuit outcomes that mean little or nothing to readers. The separation between the opinion/editorial/letters room and the news-gathering room is designed on the one hand to give maximum play to a variety of opinions while on the other ensuring that the reporting is such that, as one of many Los Angeles Times guidelines puts it, a reader "cannot detect" the political views of the reporter. In practice, this approach achieves neither goal, driving reporters to absurd lengths of concealment (such as eschewing posters and bumper stickers or refusing to reveal how they vote) and allowing editorial writers to generate under-reported wind.

Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Print journalists love to believe they are challengers of the powerful—that is, until a wealthy do-gooder shows up. Be it real estate tycoon Eli Broad peddling his latest brainstorm for urban renewal or oil magnate T. Boone Pickens looking to seize countless acres of the American Midwest and put up windmills, a billionaire with a boondoggle clouds reporters' minds.

If you wouldn't want to see it while eating breakfast, it doesn't belong in the paper. Like most gatekeeper rules of thumb, the breakfast test dresses up personal prejudice in a disguise of duty and judgment. It tells you one thing: what some elderly white male liberal considers tasteful. If you're offended by full-color photos of puddles of blood in Iraq (a front-page favorite during the pre-surge era) but would be untroubled by full-frontal nudity on Page 1, if your stomach remains calm in the face of Democratic sex scandals and celebrity high jinks but gets troubled by glaring economic ignorance, then by all means don't take your newspaper with your Wheaties. (Since ever fewer Americans take a newspaper at all, the threat of morning unwellness seems to be diminishing.)

It's too bad we can't fire our readers.
You don't hear this one in mixed company, but the joke about "firing our readers" was one I heard on at least three occasions at the L.A. Times, until I finally realized it wasn't a joke. The contempt and condescension the paper expressed for its readers had hardened into active hatred. In that respect, this journalismism is not a falsehood, because it expresses an honest feeling. But the "can't" part is all wrong: The Times shed 40,000 readers during the last two years, nearly 300,000 during the last 10. The customer is firing himself.

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh was a web and print staffer at the Los Angeles Times.

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  • anarch||

    The contempt and condescension the paper expressed for its readers had hardened into active hatred


    = Dog bites man: "No man is hero to his valet."

    Now then, someone please tell me what's tautological about "All the news that's fit to print."

  • ed||

    what's tautological about "All the news that's fit to print."

    My girl Merriam says "tautological" means:

    involving or containing the rhetorical

    redundant

    true by virtue of its logical form alone

    So I suppose if it's news, it's already fit to print, the determining factor being the word "news", and maybe "fit."

  • Potts||

    "If it bleeds, it leads," is more commonly used to refer to broadcast, and especially local broadcast news, where the statement actually does carry some truth.

  • ||

    Newspapers are dying because they're a lousy value proposition for the buyers. They're the horse and buggy of mass communication, and it's only inertia that's allowed them to last this long.

    What I'm more interested in though, is the implosion of television news. Ever since Dan Rather blew his credibility for a shot at being more famous than Woodward and Bernstein, American viewers have been about as skeptical of our network news as the Russians were of their propaganda outlets. TV networks today are reduced to simple pandering, and employing morons to holler at each other and their guests.

    I think that the key difference between the first and second great depressions is going to be the fact that we have the internet now, and in the 1930s, there was radio, and it was one-way. People heard what FDR wanted them to hear, and if they wanted to call it bullshit, they could only reach a handful of people in earshot.

    This time though, as Obama or McCain fails in their attempt to run the economy, the clown in the oval office isn't going to be the only one getting his message out. Millions of people will be able to point out his failures, and we might just bring an end to what's left of Americans' baseless faith in the capacity of a government to solve an economic problem.

    -jcr

  • Mad Max||

    Print journalism isn't what it used to be, and it never was.

    According to the 1930s play The Front Page (which was made into a Hollywood movie), the term "pickaninny" is an acceptable term for a New York newspaper editor to use in referring to an African-American child. The play, of course, had a major plot-line about a newspaper crusade to save the life of an admitted cop-killer - the killer was white and the cop was black.

    Not sure what this has to do with anything, but I was feeling like piling on.

  • Cavanaugh\'s Bridge to the LA ||

    Help! Help! Someone call the fire department, I'm burning!

  • ||

    IMHO the news business began to head south when it stopped being a "trade" and instead became a "profession".

    Case in point - according to the latest Pew report, more people are getting their news from the "trade" journalists on the net then the "professional" journalists in newspapers.

  • cunnivore||

    When a reporter's mother tells him she loves him, he still checks the story out.

    You don't need any insider info to know this myth is false. Just read any article about the War on Drugs and search in vain for independent verification of the claims of cops and other authority figures.

  • ||

    When a reporter's mother tells him she loves him, he still checks the story out.

    This is the killer. The self-aggrandizement of journalists is truly astounding. But one could simply ignore their narcissism if not for their laziness. No story is ever investigated. Journalists merely quote their sources, and as cunnivore points out, they don't even make an effort to find other sources. Journalists' complete and utter ignorance of all subjects, as evidenced by their willingness to print the most obvious bullshit, knows no bounds.

  • ed||

    Journalism is a priesthood and as such the priests cling to cherished myths about reality. They well understand the crucial, nay life-and-death imperative in continuing to fool the serfs. The cat's half out of the bag. We should be more worried about what's taking its place.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Making fun of newspapers, well, it's almost as easy as making fun of Tim Cavanaugh, not to mention "Reason" magazine, not to mention Libertarian Party coventions. Newspapers are full of jive. So is the rest of humanity.

  • ||

    drink

  • ||

    Bendover,

    Can you give a few examples of what you're talking about

  • reporter\'s mother||

    When a reporter's mother tells him she loves him, he still checks the story out.


    That's because he imagines he could deserve it. What a putz my sweet boy is!

  • ||

    Say, what's this business about the L.A. Times sitting on some Obama tape? Is that just partisan nonsense, or is there any substance there? And please, someone reasonably neutral answer me. Just this once.

  • ||

    The problem is that it would help if the Newspapers were in the business of making money versus pushing their view on the world. The San Fran Chronical had Obama saying in an interview that he was going to bankrupt anyone who wants to build a big coal plant. That is an interesting story. Certainly the kind of thing that might sell newspapers. Did they report that? Hell no they buried it in plain sight on their web page and wrote two long stories about the interview and never mentioned the statement.

    The LA Times had the goods on John Edwards and his love child and refused print it. I think political sex scandals have been selling newspapers propably since the Roman Empire was breaking stories about Caligula and his sister.

    It is hard to sell newspapers when you are not interested in stories that will sell them. If things contintue as they are, how long before the Washington Post, LA Times, NY Times or some other big mainline newspaper goes broke? What happens then? Would there be a movement within the government to bail them out like the auto industry? It sounds crazy but I think there might be. Even I am taken aback by the idea of the big old line papers like the Times going away. What happens then? How does a newspaper cover the government that it is dependent on payments from for its existence?

  • ||

    "Say, what's this business about the L.A. Times sitting on some Obama tape? Is that just partisan nonsense, or is there any substance there? And please, someone reasonably neutral answer me. Just this once."

    There is a tape of him toasting some PLO grandee or some American Palistinian who has ties to the PLO. The LA Times was given the tape on the condition that they not release it. Why the holder of the tape doesn't want it released is anyone's guess. The Times wrote a story alluding to the contents but since no one has seen the contents no one is sure how acurate the story is.

    The issue over the tape is really the result of no one trusting the media anymore. If they trusted the Times to tell the truth, no one would care to see the actual tape since they know the contents. Since no one trusts the Times to tell the truth about Obama, everyone wants to see what else is in the tape thinking that the Times somehow whitewashed it.

  • ||

    Interesting. Well, I can see the paper wanting to keep access open to materials like this, because if they turn this over, the next source will likely just say no.

    On the other hand, if the tape really has content that shows that Obama was or even merely appeared to be anti-Israel, that could hurt the L.A. Times quite a bit. I doubt the content is that obvious, but, if it is and it got out before the election, Obama would have no chance of winning.

  • ||

    So what is the business model for news in the future, Tim? Never forget: Reason magazine is funded by millionaire ideologues. It does not operate at a profit (as most newspapers continue to do).

  • ||

    "So what is the business model for news in the future, Tim? Never forget: Reason magazine is funded by millionaire ideologues. It does not operate at a profit (as most newspapers continue to do)."


    Do what the ideologues can't do, report the news.

  • ||

    John:
    I agree with you that this is part of the path to success for newspapers. I also agree with you that newspapers too often fall short in this regard.

    But newspapers aren't significantly less credible or more biased than they were 10 years ago. What changed isn't bias, it's the internet.

    Newspapers are biased. Newspapers are in trouble. But let's not fool ourselves and assume that one led to the other.

  • ||

    "Newspapers are biased. Newspapers are in trouble. But let's not fool ourselves and assume that one led to the other."


    It is true that Newspapers have been biased for a long time now. What the internet did was take away their ability to get away with it.

    I really think if you put together a news network or news paper and made the staff and the editors 50/50 conservative liberal and only hired people who took an oath to be as objective as possible and let people with other views check their objectivity, it would be a success. You could do all of the hard reporting and fact finding that blogs and amateurs can't always do.

    Alas no one seems interested in doing that.

  • ||

    Mark,

    What is infuriating about the big newspapers is that they still can do great reporting, they just refuse to. Read the science section of the New York Times sometime. As long as it doesn't relate to global warming and stays with non-politically charged topics, it kicks ass.

    Yesterday on the frontpage of the Times there was a real story about GUITMO. A real news story about the actual people that are there and how many of them are actually dangerous and what a difficult issue it is to determine what to do with them. That story could have and should have been written five years ago. Instead it gets published the day before the election when the Times thinks their guy is going to win and have to deal with the issue. If they were interested in reporting and selling papers and making money, that story and many others like it would have been published years ago.

    If their guy wins today, expect the major newspapers to all of the sudden discover Obama's past and the nuances of the war on terror and all sorts of other stories they never would write before in an attempt to try to engraciate themselves to the half of the country that hates their guts and doesn't trust them. It won't work, but they will try.

  • :-/||

    making fun of Tim Cavanaugh, not to mention "Reason" magazine,
    not to mention Libertarian Party coventions


    AV used to be witty. Now he's bitter. What happened, Alan, to make you go to the trollish side? If the editors start calling you "movie critic extraordinaire" again will you come back?

  • Justen||

    I disagree with above comments about the internet somehow increasing the accuracy of information. It continues to increase the volume of information exponentially, but it hasn't at all increased our ability to absorb information. So even if theoretically in aggregate the information available is more accurate, you're probably more likely to spend the little capacity you have for absorbing it on even more biased and ignorant sources than you did when you picked up your favorite local news. There are only a few spots on the net that effectively aggregate information in a way that improves accuracy and availability.

  • ||

    Justen, goes witout saying the net is full of crap. However, after surfing for a while, most people cultivate sites that they trust. Most sites aren't afraid to link source documents to back up any position they might take. What I appreciate about the net is the diversity of viewpoints, I really distrust a business model that says "trust me, I know things, and besides my levels of editors will ensure that what I report is complete and accurate".

  • ||

    Justin,

    You should read the reporting Michael Yon did in Iraq. It was really good. Not all of the net is partisians bloviating to each other.

  • ||

    Interesting. Well, I can see the paper wanting to keep access open to materials like this, because if they turn this over, the next source will likely just say no.

    OTOH, what use to a newspaper is material that it can't publish? Why should a newspaper care if some guy who will only give them stuff if they don't use it, refuses to give them stuff they can't use?

  • ||

    Justen, on more than one occasion when I have been talking politics, current events, etc., with intelligent, well-informed people who still rely on TV, newspapers, magazines for information, they have expressed surprise and amazement that (a) I get most of my information from the intertubez and (b) I have more, or at least different, information than they do.

    To someone who applies a little effort to building their list of sites to check, the internet is vastly superior to any currently existing TV show or print publication.

  • JB||

    Newspapers are certainly dying a slow death... on paper. While allowing for information crowding, the internet is also a tool for newspapers to be more flexible and vibrant than in years past. The quality of news, however, has certainly diminished for several reasons.

    News media has become more bias, and more open about that bias. The business model now requires seeking out an ideological niche, and a "customer base" who reinforces their political opinions with the media they consume. Only their ideological opponents receive pressing questions (mostly the right).

    The internet age now allows media to cover stories once considered trival. Once relegated to a quick burial, obscure stories now make the front page of any news website (just the today on MSNBC: High school keeps Klan leader's name").

    Lastly, while we have more content we have less information. Few stories are longer than a page, and most stories contain barely a sentence detailing the concept(s) being presented. News stories, especially in local newspapers but also in many widely-read national publications, are bland and rarely informative.

  • Metal Messiah||

    Of course newspapers are in trouble.

    They're competing with the internet, 24 hour cable news channels, and Craigslist.

    In our current media-saturated culture, there's really little need to have a daily newspaper delivered to your home.

    I can read pretty much any news item on my computer easier than I can from a printed page. The 24 hour news channels break stories faster than print can. And there's no paper to be recycled.

  • ||

    R C Dean,

    I'm not saying that I agree with their decision, of course. If there's something likely to appall voters on the tape, the L.A. Times is doing its readers and the country a major disservice in withholding it. And the truth will eventually get out, which will finish what's left of the paper's credibility.

  • ||

    "If there's something likely to appall voters on the tape, the L.A. Times is doing its readers and the country a major disservice in withholding it. And the truth will eventually get out, which will finish what's left of the paper's credibility."


    I wish I had been there and had the tape. Screw the LA Times, I would be calling the Obama campaign asking for a ambassadorship to Bermuda in return for not releasing it.

  • ||

    I wish I had been there and had the tape. Screw the LA Times, I would be calling the Obama campaign asking for a ambassadorship to Bermuda in return for not releasing it.

    I'd give them the tape if they just let me kick every congresscritter who voted for the bailout in the balls.

    -jcr

  • ||

    This is the first time in a long time I've enjoyed an article on this site :(

  • LarryA||

    According to the 1930s play The Front Page (which was made into a Hollywood movie), the term "pickaninny" is an acceptable term for a New York newspaper editor to use in referring to an African-American child. The play, of course, had a major plot-line about a newspaper crusade to save the life of an admitted cop-killer - the killer was white and the cop was black.

    Back before civil rights newspapers were more racist, just like their readers. So?

    The money shot in The Front Page was the scene where the warden issues a short, "there's no new news" statement, and half-a-dozen reporters spin it half-a-dozen ways for half-a-dozen city papers serving half-a-dozen audiences. "Modern" journalism jumped the tracks when "journalists" decided they had to be "impartial." One reporter (AP), one spin, one paper, one diminishing audience.

    The web is taking over because it's diverse.

    I really think if you put together a news network or news paper and made the staff and the editors 50/50 conservative liberal and only hired people who took an oath to be as objective as possible and let people with other views check their objectivity, it would be a success. You could do all of the hard reporting and fact finding that blogs and amateurs can't always do.

    Right start, wrong conclusion. 1) There are far more choices than conservative/liberal. 2) Have each reporter write to his/her bias, and let the others rebut. That's the route to accuracy.

  • ||

    "2) Have each reporter write to his/her bias, and let the others rebut. That's the route to accuracy."

    I've heard this idea before (in Reason, IIRC). I don't think it stands up to scrutiny. What would a reporter include in his statement of bias? What would this information really tell readers? Example: A reporter voted for Gore in 2000 and then Bush in 2004, but is opposed to the war, is pro-life and thinks there should be a flat tax - and he's the restaurant critic. How would you read his savaging of Le Cirque differently? Should he have to stake out a position on foie gras?

    And what if a journalist who didn't feel like putting up with the inevitable criticism just lied and told readers that he didn't vote and sees the merits of both sides of most issues? Or what if he really does see the merits of both sides of the issues?

    It's far too simplistic to ask people to label themselves.

  • Alan||

    RE: There is a tape of him toasting some PLO grandee. The LA Times was given the tape on the condition that they not release it. Why the holder of the tape doesn't want it released is anyone's guess.

    My understanding is that taping the event was allowed on the condition that the tape would not be released. Journalists make promisses like this to gain access. Sometimes they go to jail rather than break them.

  • Alan||

    Newspaper reporting isn't biased. The facts just arn't acceptable to partisians and Ideologues.

  • nfl jerseys||

    jetgf

  • ||

    The issue over the tape is really the result of no one trusting the media anymore. For exemple, Yatsenyuck. If they trusted the Times to tell the truth, no one would care to see the actual tape since they know the contents.

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