News & Criticism

Stop the Journalismisms!

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

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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.