Up From Journalism
In the past decade, television has become the most valued source of news by the American public. The tabloid journalism of television news—with its emphasis on story line, conflict, and "kicker" at the end—usually results in the mindless melodrama in which television—and certain "new" journalists—excel. At the same time, television's on-the-spot accounts of daily events have made it the "most believable" source of news, according to one Elmo Roper poll. So the news, while distorted, is also believed, which astonishes many in the newspaper business. By the broadcasters' own estimate, news disseminated on an average half-hour television program would not fill the front page of most daily newspapers. What is the attraction?
The attraction is that television news programs provide a service to the news consumer—capsulization. They offer the amount and kind of information that most people think they need to get by on a daily basis (ignoring, for a minute, the distortions). Television capsulizes the daily, ongoing—and usually governmental—doings of society, and is supplying a market for which it is best suited. Says one television news producer: "The audience at dinner time wants to know the answers to three very important questions: Is the world safe? Is my hometown and my home safe? If my wife and children are safe, then what has happened in the past 24 hours to make them better off or to amuse them?" This is an audience constantly interrupted by "clattering dinner dishes, chattering dinner conversation and diminishing fatigue of a day at the office," he says. Television evening news "is not the highest form of journalism. It is partly an illustrated headline service and partly a magazine. And yes, it is part show business…It also offers a daily news summary which is effective in providing a shorthand version of shorthand, incomplete events. The important point is that, for the moment, this is all the average person needs to know about daily events.
Newspapers are, for the most part, anachronisms: editors continue to fight for this same consumer of news which television reaches so effectively. A newspaper is a different medium than television. The printed word is not an image, gone in an instant, and the newspaper is not a television tube, demanding attention at a given time for its soap opera version of "new" journalism. But most newspaper editors continue to chase after the day's trivia, gossip, government-inspired press release or pressure group's brief, when such a policy, noncredible to begin with, has now also become outmoded. The message is killing the medium, which illustrates former editor Gerald Johnson's rule: "To use any implement for a purpose to which it is not adapted is more likely to ruin the implement than to effect the purpose."
MYSTIQUE OF JOURNALISM
A large part of the problem is a mystique about journalism which hampers any rational consideration of a journalist's product: news. This mystique holds that news is an indispensable commodity, the "first tribal need after warmth, food and women" (Kipling), and that the newspaper business is basic to a community's well being. The mystique extends to a newspaper's operation, which is usually described as if in the hands of history and beyond man's control. "The newspaper, like the modern city, is not wholly a rational product," wrote sociologist Robert E. Park. "No one sought to make it just what it is. In spite of all the efforts of individual men and generations of men to control it and make it something after their own heart, it has continued to grow and change in its own incalculable ways."
In fact, newspapers are not essentially different from other producer-consumer enterprises, all run by and for mortals. Newspapers change partly because the times change, but mostly because editors and publishers choose to change them, and it is this factor of free will that is usually absent from historical treatments of the newspaper business, as well as from current critiques.
Presently, there are two basic approaches to the news business, and by far the most dominant one is that of the NEW YORK TIMES. The minority approach—virtually a minority of one—is that of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference is to examine each newspaper's treatment of a randomly-picked (December 6, 1972) news day. The major page-one stories, with several lead paragraphs, for both newspapers' December 6, 1972 editions are listed below:
NEW YORK TIMES: 1. Impending Apollo 17 liftoff ["Apollo 17, the nation's last planned flight to the moon for years to come, was declared ready today for its fiery nighttime launching…"] 2. Vietnam peace talk developments ["Well-placed Administration officials report that Henry A. Kissinger is raising questions with North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris about intelligence reports showing that Hanoi, after a cease-fire, intends to hide much of its army in South Vietnam in Vietcong units."] 3. City bond sale ["New York City sold long-term bonds yesterday at the most favorable terms since 1965…"] 4. Supreme Court ruling on night club sex shows. 5. Appeals court ruling on automobile air bags. 6. End to Australia's military draft. 7. U.S.-Cuba air hijack discussions. 8. Governor Rockefeller urged to enter rail strike negotiations. 9. Prisoner-of-war wives feature.
WALL STREET JOURNAL: 1. General Motors' reorganized assembly lines ["Up until a few months ago, Ernest Barnes's workday consisted of installing two bolts on the bumper of every Camero, Firebird and Nova that came down the assembly line, 65 seconds apart, at the General Motors plant here. Despite the monotony of the task, the 36-year-old, red-bearded worker says he liked his job 'pretty much.'"—first of a three-part series] 2. Moonshots generate new theories ["When scientists set out a decade ago to chart the most difficult, dangerous and costly expedition in history—the trip to the moon—they were filled with apprehension and uncertainty."] 3. The business of collage nostalgia ["Consider the unhappy plight of Thomas A. Brannon. Thomas A. Brannon has three buckeye trees in his front yard in Neward, Ohio. His den is done up in scarlet and gray. He acknowledges that 'I have Ohio State drinking glasses, and I have just ordered two ashtrays in the shape of the school stadium…'"] 4. What's News—a news summary of Paris peace talks, Supreme Court sex show ruling, etc.
The philosophies guiding these newspapers are obviously different (ignoring for the moment the JOURNAL's business orientation). The TIMES approach is geared strictly to occurrences within the past 24 hours—accounts of continuing events captured in mid-flight and incomplete (the Apollo launch, the Vietnam peace talks). The TIMES sees itself as a "newspaper of record" publishing "all the news that's fit to print." Back in reality, TIMES' editors must interpret this impossible assignment. Judging by their output, the editors clearly mean that "news" consists of daily developments (or occasionally, nondevelopments, such as the Apollo story).
But which developments? On this point, the TIMES is consistent, if not confusing. Its founder, Adolph S. Ochs, declared that the newspaper's guiding principle would be to "give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form…and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect or interest involved; to make the columns of the NEW YORK TIMES a forum for the consideration of questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion." Following up many years later, the TIMES' recently-retired editor Turner Catledge would define news as "something you didn't know before, had forgotten, or didn't understand."
The relevant part of Ochs' credo still dominates the TIMES: it remains a seemingly impartial "forum," striving to "objectively" report those subjective statements of its news sources, which provide "intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion." But which sources? From my random sample, or any other, the answer is obvious: from government sources. In the majority of cases, news stories are based on announcements of government officials (or the courts). The news "forum" is not one defined by newspaper editors, but a government forum, where newspapers truly become a "fourth estate,"—or "the fourth branch of government," according to Douglass Cater. The process is so advanced, says Cater, that the typical reporter is not only a "recorder" of government activities, but also a "participant"—even "the 'leak' has become institutionalized" and "The open press conference has turned into a mass convocation.…" All this derives from the dominant TIMES' definition of news, which transforms itself from "what is" to "what government says it is—today."
One main drawback of news produced by such a system is that it is invariably incomplete. Increasingly the news seems to need "interpretation," or "backgrounding," which often means the reporter's nonevidentiary opinions or repetitious history. The message is that the news is not able to stand alone, and needs artificial supplementation. In fact, what is needed is not so much background but foreground—what is to happen when the news has run its course—which unfortunately (but necessarily) is not available to the reporter at an "early, if not earlier" press conference.
The TIMES' version of news is also vague. An editor of another newspaper has said: "What we try to do is begin the week with a fistful of questions, and decide what answers will go on the front page each day." What questions are answered by the TIMES' news, except one: "What happened today—in government"? This is the same function provided by television news.
The editors of the TIMES may be getting the message that their news policy is outmoded and noncredible. Although there are many reasons for a decline in earnings, the TIMES' decline is too great and too consistent to be explained away by references to union demands. Its earnings-per-share are falling ("the mother wasn't too healthy this year," says President Arthur Ochs Sulzberger) at the same time that other operations of the parent company (FAMILY CIRCLE and GOLF DIGEST magazines) increased their earnings dramatically. Also, the TIMES is doing more page-one news stories that are not related to governmental, daily announcements-such as the prisoner-of-war-wives article noted above. These are based on thoroughly investigated issues—rather than daily announcements or events—and in which reporters provide independently verified evidence. The information in these articles is credible, rather than merely attributable.
On the other hand, the WALL STREET JOURNAL represents an ideological revolution in the newspaper business: a newspaper whose page one is devoted largely to issues which are not tied to governmental announcements or occurrences within the past 24 hours. Daily events are summarized in one-paragraph "briefs" on page one. The remainder of the newspaper is governed only somewhat by this philosophy, but there is evidence that much of the JOURNAL's phenomenal success is due to this revolutionary approach.
And success it undoubtedly is. Besides its profitability (nearly $4 million in 1970), even more impressive is the newspaper's growth: from 234,000 circulation in 1952 to 1.3 million today—second place among all daily newspapers. The JOURNAL stands as a practical answer to those who argue that theoretical alternatives to current journalism practice won't work. Against greater odds than most local newspapers face, the JOURNAL has "worked" better than anyone could have anticipated.
However, until 1941, the newspaper was just another dull business-financial sheet, with small circulation and low profitability. At that time, Bernard Kilgore, an underrated giant of American journalism, was named managing editor. Kilgore started a page-one policy of "leader" articles whose subject matter would be wide-ranging and "not necessarily tied to yesterday's news" (FORTUNE). In a communications world dominated by the jazz-journalism of Hearst and Luce, Kilgore's policy was—to put it mildly—an innovation. It ignored time, space, and attention-gaining elements of traditional news, and concentrated on one element: importance. On a six-column page one, columns one and six are reserved for Kilgore's pioneering "leaders" which run for an undetermined length. Column six is often tied to current news, and may contain a "trend" piece, or a round up of business views about the latest economic policy, the Vietnam war, or other matters. Column four was usually reserved by Kilgore for a shorter, lighter piece. Although there is apparently some disagreement among the JOURNAL's staff as to how far afield from business the newspaper should go on page one, the editors' policy has remained eclectic. Leaders have been defined by one writer as "packed with information that had been closely checked and intelligently collated" and written for those who "take an innocent delight in knowing what's going on around them." Kilgore's front page was and still is a radical (i.e., fundamental) departure from traditional journalism.
But Kilgore retained the newspaper's most popular column, "What's News," the page one daily news summary which TIME magazine called "revolutionary." The column takes 16 man-hours to write and about 6 minutes to read, and NEW YORK TIMES' readers were said at one time to be "irritated" by the summary's lack of detail. Of course, the summary has since been copied in modified form by the TIMES and many other newspapers. But the column makes an important point: that daily news is necessarily incomplete, often needs verification of important details, and nontreatment of lesser or dubious ones, and that in general it deserves less prominence than the closely-checked leaders.
NEW TYPE NEWS STORY
Kilgore expanded the JOURNAL's readership to include "everybody who is engaged in making a living or is interested in how other people make a living." In other words, his clear intention was to make the newspaper more than a financial newspaper. He added book, theatre and opera reviews. Vermont Royster, a co-editor, said Kilgore "dared to do everything differently," that he created "a new edifice atop the old foundation," and a new type of news story which, "while dealing with current events, was not tied down to yesterday's developments." Such news, said Royster, is "for people who may wish to know more about the subject than simply that 'something happened yesterday.'" Kilgore started a now-standard JOURNAL policy of hiring new journalism graduates to allow the paper to "train its staff in its own methods of news gathering and presentation" (EDITOR & PUBLISHER).
This innovative approach to news has generated certain "formula" treatments of news which help standardize the product. The trend story is one example. In a post-facto analysis, a writer for the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW discovered that such JOURNAL stories invariably follow a DEE (description-explanation-evaluation) formula. What is most striking is that the system makes sense—it being rational to describe before explaining a trend, and to explain before evaluating it. Such innovations are more likely to occur within the JOURNAL-approach than in the what-happened-today-especially-in-government approach.
If there is an explicit journalistic philosophy governing the editors of the JOURNAL, it is not easily discovered. Journalism editors are notoriously aphilosophical about their work, and those at the JOURNAL are no exception. What is news, what is the relationship between news and truth—these are issues absent from speeches of the JOURNAL's management. We have only the most general statements to examine, but even here there is a sense that the JOURNAL's approach is different from standard journalism practice.
"We are a business newspaper," said then-JOURNAL editor William H. Grimes in 1952. "Yet in our subscription lists there are many subscribers—many college students, for instance—who are not usually considered as business people. They like a publication which presents the meaningful news and news interpretations of the day, which presents them without bias, which omits the fires, the assaults, and the murders and does not club them over the head with black type." There is no talk here of the JOURNAL being a "forum" for "all shades of opinion"—only of presenting meaningful news, which Grimes describes as omitting much of what has constituted traditional daily journalism. The JOURNAL is a specialized (business) newspaper, he goes on, but "the interests and activities of its editors must be as diverse as the American landscape. The editors are specialists in the way that a medical diagnostician is a specialist; the diagnostician has a certain function, but to perform that function he must have an accurate and detailed knowledge of the human anatomy. Just so the business editor must have access to all the news. His specialty is selection and treatment. We are like the diagnostician in another respect. We must tell what we find and not merely what will be pleasing."
Because the JOURNAL recognized, long ago under Kilgore, that the news cannot be told in abbreviated, pyramid-style form, nor with flashy typography a la television, it has maintained a vertical layout which allows long, complete treatment of issues. This has helped overcome a key defect of traditional journalism: incompleteness (usually referred to as "lack of backgrounding"). A 1968 study by the American Newspaper Publishers Association found that "reporter's insufficient background information" was the chief cause of newspaper inaccuracies—as cited by both news sources and reporters. The researchers recommended that reporters be given by their editors "extra time" to gather background information and to write a first-time story: "First-time assignments should perhaps 'automatically' be given extended deadlines" say the researchers. JOURNAL reporters have "weeks, months and even years" (FORTUNE) to prepare leaders, which are given extended space (although much business news on the inside pages is treated in typical daily fashion).
"MOST TRUSTED" NEWSPAPER
It is these theoretical and structural reasons that have enabled the JOURNAL to be cited by one Louis Harris poll as America's "most trusted" newspaper. JOURNAL editors have applied strict standards to placement and treatment of news and subcategories of news—in a process which I have called JOURNALIZING the news. This consists of defining the news and a newspaper's function in an intelligent manner (not "what I say it is") and applying those standards to the gathering, treatment and presentation of news. The JOURNAL, for the most part, has done this, not as consistently or explicitly as one would like in an ideal world, but nevertheless in a way that is a radical departure from traditional journalism practice, which has turned many newspapers into glorified rumor mills.
The JOURNAL's news standards are vague, but the thrust is right. Dow Jones President William F. Kerby has said: "Fires, rapes and scandals are out. But all serious news is of interest to the businessman—the Congo crisis, the landing of Marines in Lebanon, the Little Rock school integration.…[the JOURNAL] has broadened its concept of what news is a necessary tool for business." At a recent University of Michigan award ceremony, Kerby talked about proposals to create public panels which would assess newspaper performance in terms of how it reflects the concerns of special-interest groups. "It isn't the job of a newspaper to reflect anything except the plain truth," he said.
This departure from traditional journalism practice has rankled and confused some critics. Former JOURNAL reporter A. Kent MacDougall has criticized the newspaper's slow, cautious or nonexistent treatment of such scandals as the Bill Sol Estes and Bernie Cornfield affairs, and its being "scooped" on International Telephone & Telegraph's "brazen favor-seeking in Washington." These are all legitimate news stories, but hardly examples of serious errors. Yet the lesson is that this is what traditional journalism offers as important news: Big Business stereotypes, scandals, the length of Howard Hughes' fingernails, and here-today-forgotten-tomorrow escapades of swindlers and powerful pressure groups (not the issue of lobbies, but rather cops-and-robbers).
The JOURNAL is not flawless, but its understanding of what constitutes news, and how to get and present it, represents a new direction of journalism practice. Compare its December 6, 1972 issue above with its competitors: invariably the JOURNAL has dealt with long-range issues rather than short-range events. Rather than innocuous preparations for Apollo 17, or, say, isolated worker rebellions at Lordstown, the JOURNAL considers what has been learned from all the Apollo moon flights, and the totality of problems at General Motor's assembly line. More than a different focus or function, this represents a different concept of news.
MacDougall is beside himself in examining the JOURNAL's lack of interest in the Howard Hughes' autobiography hoax, largely because he is looking at it from the perspective of traditional jazz journalism. He writes: "Though some editors contend that Clifford Irving's escapade wasn't a business story, the involvement of the nation's least seen and most publicized (?) businessman, the humiliation of Time Inc. and McGraw-Hill, and the story's fascination for both general and business readers would indicate otherwise. The NEW YORK TIMES smothered the story with a task force of top reporters; the JOURNAL didn't assign a single man full time. The Hughes noncoverage illustrates the JOURNAL's reluctance to react quickly and decisively to a breaking story that isn't a must because of its direct impact on the economy or the stock market."
The JOURNAL's coverage of the Hughes-lrving "escapade" is illustrative. For the most part, the newspaper covered the unfolding events of the hoax in its news summary columns, except for McGraw-Hill's initial announcements and Hughes' denial, which was carried as a news item on page eight. There was no "team" reporting of this nonevent, and no "scoops." The most extensive treatment, provided in a page-one feature, was a story about the "jostling match" and scramble for scoops among the traditional media. This is not an isolated case of intransigence. Even MacDougall admits that in his ten years at the JOURNAL he "never heard of any reporter being asked to write a puff piece for an advertiser, take it easy on a news source or angle a story beyond what the facts warranted." As another writer said: "The JOURNAL [is] rotten with integrity from top to bottom."
PRESSURE FOR CHANGE
There is pressure on the JOURNAL for changes, and one hopes they come soon. Most of the reporter dissatisfaction concerns the inside pages, where writers must contribute coverage of annual meetings, calling in unsubstantiated quotations "with a dime clenched in our teeth, having to move out to the pay phone to report the latest corporate tidbit" (according to one reporter). The JOURNAL is not consistent, but what is these days?
"Journalizing" the news is not the whole answer to newspaper problems. Nothing is. But those responsible for the JOURNAL have contributed some innovative, practical solutions to the decline of the daily newspaper, and some have been copied already. The JOURNAL seems to have been the first newspaper to categorize news according to its ability to stand by itself—its completeness. By extension, instead of applying the news-summary principles only to world news, as many newspapers do, this might apply to all news depending on its completeness. This would mean that daily news, which is a kind of "sub-news" anyway, would be quickly summarized and dispensed with in a news summary or "briefs" column—to be elaborated further when events develop or reporters have time to flesh out the complete story (usually not the daily announcement anyway, but the issue). This would apply to both world and local news—all would be categorized. Official source rumors or "leaks" of changes in a foreign government say, would be similarly treated.
In fact, the NEW YORK TIMES does some of this already, although in an inconsistent way. A "Metropolitan Briefs" column on the inside pages covers such tidbits as an open-burning ban extension and a nude "swim-in"—the beginnings of categorizing news. The TIMES has a daily news summary, which serves as more of an index to longer versions on other pages. There is evidence that TIMES' officials are aware of these problems. Asked what he would do in the future to avoid the embarrassing news abuses of Henry Kissinger's "peace is at hand" announcements (long before peace was at hand), one TIMES' man said: "Write less."
Editors might also set "boundaries" on news—whereby editorial decisions are made about the generally-acceptable limits of reporting certain pronouncements. For example, there is need for a limit on the acceptable kinds and lengths of "forecasts"—whether the prophet is dealing with next year's Gross National Product, the year 2000, or future corporate profits. "Boundary"-setting journalists might say, for example, that any forecast beyond six months on any meaningful subject is not supportable, or that a company president may state the past trend in profits, but make no judgments about the future. The market for that kind of forecast is better served by a company newsletter anyway.
At least one editor has begun to try to make some of these principles work. Almost two years ago, the Bedford (Pa.) DAILY GAZETTE began copying the WALL STREET JOURNAL format because, according to GAZETTE editor Edward Frear: "We think that they (JOURNAL editors) are doing what we all ought to be doing—probing the world instead of chasing fire trucks." Frear instituted the change because "somewhere in that mindless parade of days, a vision appeared. Why not try to put out a thoughtful newspaper, one that initiated rather than jumped?" He began a "Top of the Morning" news summary column, and worked it into a revised vertical layout which eliminated misleading headlines and "increased our output by at least one-third." Frear operates in a one-newspaper county, with a three-man staff, but the opportunity to write page-one "leaders" that "initiated rather than jumped" has resulted in stories on damage to area trees by the Gypsy moth, the workings of no-fault insurance and how strikers get food stamps. Frear wonders whether the system would work in a large metropolitan area. Is there any doubt? Says Frear: "What we're doing is not muckraking, nor is it really in-depth reporting. It's planned (my italics). It begins with a question. It tries to look at the whole situation.…"
Journalism-via-newspapers is not a "tribal need," and there is no economic law which holds that newspapers are absolutely necessary. The editors of LIFE magazine, a vehicle for photojournalism in an era dominated by television, found out what happens to a journal that loses its raison d 'etre. Newspapers are being replaced as a primary information medium; the next step is to replace them altogether. Most newspapers are unreliable sources of information, and are being made less necessary by television—which is better at passing along unreliable information anyway. But newspaper editors have both a theoretical and practical model to help them adapt. In short: it's time to "journalize" the news.
Dennis J. Chase is a frequent contributor to local and national publications. He interviewed attorney Bernard Siegan for REASON's April 1973 issue, "The New Approach to Planning: Nonzoning."