My Two Dollar Newspaper Sucks
By: Mark W Adams

I touched base with an old and dear friend recently, one who works in one of those editorial board rooms we all talk about but only really know from the movies.  We joked a bit about his dying industry -- he noted what a prick I was for getting all my news online for the last ten years and that as long as he didn't quit drinking beer the least I could do was buy a dead tree version of the paper once in a while.  I did today. I'm skeptical what value I got for my Two Dollar Sunday edition.

There was a bit of a disconnect on what's happening to the newspaper business and my friend's insight on what is happening to the business of news.  I mentioned that Murdoch was doing his best to kill the industry. From my view the FOXization of the media is destroying it's credibility and function as a true check on government power -- the role that earns the press the moniker Fourth Estate.  He ignored this observation and described what he called the "perfect storm" that now threatens the very existence of large and small papers world-wide. 

He predicts that our generation will be the last to remember actually holding something in our hands made of wood pulp and ink.  At a time when more and more people have moved to getting their news online for free, advertisers who have always been the backbone of press room revenue are drying up due to the economic purgatory we're now dealing with.  That's his two parts of the print media's deadly perfect storm, online flight coupled with recession, but there is a third systemic problem -- and it's the stuff right in his lap.

He described the elements of this perfect storm in a way that conveniently removed any responsibility on the reporting and editorial staff -- and thus any ability for improvement by the talent, the product the producers of news provide.  Excellence in journalism is not rewarded in his analysis, nor mediocrity discouraged.  I'm not saying that he is unaware or unappreciative of the content role in print's impending doom, just that it wasn't the first thing he points to as the cause.  He is a rather smart guy after all, so I'm sure he gets it.  He just wasn't bitching about it.

Enter journalism Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, Twitter Guru and one of the few old guys who gets new media.  He rails against press "curmudgeons" clinging to the old models every day.  Barbara at Mahablog noted his take on the inanity of typical "he said-she said" reporting, the kind of infotainment that led Jon Stewart to virtually destroy CNN's "Crossfire" program -- covering the controversy, the shouting match, instead of digging through the noise and exposing/explaining/truth-telling.  This was the subject of Neal Gabler's fine piece at the Los Angeles Times which sparked both Barbara and Jay to chime in.
To look at this in a larger context, journalists would no doubt say that it isn't really their job to ferret out the "truth." It is their job to report "facts." If Palin says that Obama intends to euthanize her child, they report it. If Limbaugh says that Obama's healthcare plan smacks of Nazism, they report it. And if riled citizens begin shouting down their representatives, they report it, and report it, and report it. The more noise and the bigger the controversy, the greater the coverage. This creates a situation in which not only is the truth subordinate to lies, but one in which shameless lies are actually privileged over reasoned debate.

Don't think the militants don't know this and take full advantage of it. They know that the media, especially the so-called liberal mainstream media -- which are hardly liberal if assessed honestly -- refrain from attempting to referee arguments for fear that they will be accused by the right of taking sides. So rather than be battered, the media -- and I am talking about the respectable media, not the carnival barkers on cable -- increasingly strive for the simplest sort of balance rather than real objectivity. They marshal facts, but they don't seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and "end of life" counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.
Face it.  Over the last decade or two, journalists and the politicians they cover have made lawyers look good.

Gabler's piece (which is excellent and if you follow one link from this post this is it) does proffer a prescription for this fact-reporting vs. truth-telling dilemma: "shoe leather."
It requires digging up facts that aren't being handed to you, talking to experts, thinking hard about what you find.
Of course there's even more to it.  Not just thinking "hard," but thinking "different."  Rosen touched on this in an earlier article this week before Gabler admonished his colleagues to "tell the truth not because anyone really wants them to but because it is the right thing to do -- the essential thing to do -- for the sake of our democracy."  Rosen talked about the difference between explanation leading to information and reporting raw information without explanation, leaving it to the reader to supply their own analysis, form their own opinion and divine for themselves the "truth" -- which more often than not allows the news consumer to cherry-pick that set of raw data they like and reinforces their strenuously held preconceptions and avoid critical thinking.

There's a backwards model that leads to enlightenment.  Take it away, Jay:
In the normal hierarchy of journalistic achievement the most “basic” acts are reporting today’s news and providing current information, as with prices, weather reports and ball scores. We think of “analysis,” “interpretation,” and also “explanation” as higher order acts. They come after the news has been reported, building upon a base of factual information laid down by prior reports.

In this model, I would receive news about something brewing in the mortgage banking arena, and make note it. (“”Subprime lenders in trouble: check.”) Then I would receive some more news and perhaps keep an even closer eye on the story. After absorbing additional reports of ongoing problems in the mortgage market (their frequency serving as a signal that something is truly up) I might then turn to an “analysis” piece for more on the possible consequences, or perhaps a roundtable with experts on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. I thus graduate from the simpler to the more sophisticated forms of news as I learn more about a potentially far-reaching development. That’s the way it works… right?

Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of “subprime” items in front of me.

On top of that, if I decide to buckle down and really pay attention to “subprime lenders in crisis” news—including the analysis pieces and the economics columnist—I am likely to feel even more frustrated because the missing narrative prevents these good-faith efforts from making much of a difference. The columnist who says he is going to explain it to me typically assumes too much knowledge (“mortgage-backed securities?”) or has too little space, or is bored with the elementary task of explanation and prefers that more sophisticated work appear under his byline. Or maybe, as with this story, the very people paid to understand the story barely know how to explain it. That’s the opening theme of this column from The New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt, “Can’t Grasp Credit Crisis? Join the Club.
I spent a good part of the last few days calling people on Wall Street and in the government to ask one question, “Can you try to explain this to me?” When they finished, I often had a highly sophisticated follow-up question: “Can you try again?”
I remember reading this column at the time and feeling grateful that someone at least tried. (He got about a third of the way there.) But Leonhardt’s column wasn’t displayed or classified in the right way. It should have been a tool in the sidebar of every news story the Times did about the mortgage mess. Instead it was added to the content flow, like this: news, news, news, “analysis,” news, news, news, “interpretation piece,” news, news, news, news, “Leonhardt: explain this to me,” news, news, news…

That’s messed up. That’s dysfunctional. We have to fix that.

Sorry to say, but noting the nature and space constraints of newsprint, and the passive nature of television news, online media is uniquely suited to presenting this kind of "scaffolding" upon which to present the news.  The interactive "sidebox" have few analogues in print, links to more in depth material or primers, graphics conveniently accessible at the touch of a mouse button, an expandable narrative that puts information in contextual relation with the "big picture."

Print can't compete with that, but it's failure to sharpen it's most potent weapon against the digital encroachment -- truth-telling as opposed to information spewing -- is ignored at it's peril.  Magazine formats seem better suited to this than daily papers, but unless reporters and editors are willing to admit they judge (and they do no matter how hard they avoid such appearances) and explain, they are doomed until they teach their customers how the facts they report fit into the larger scheme of things complete with reporting on what are fair yet contrary positions; yet unafraid of exposing mere obstructionists uninterested in solving problems while shouting down all who threaten the status quo that pays their rent.

This is something rarely seen in print, but more common there than cable news.  However online in depth presentation of the overall narrative is much, much more common.  Advertisers come and go with business cycles, but if print is to survive competition from the web just as it survived radio and TV, it's got to offer more than reporting that there is a controversy, buy why and which side is making sense and sincere in their arguments and which side is using the media to blow smoke.

For a recent example, it's fine that smug pundits now talk about revelations that the head of Homeland Security himself wondered about and eventually left the government because the color-coded terror alert system had been compromised by electoral politics, saying that everyone knew or at least suspected the Bush administration was abusing the system.  But where were the intrepid journalists at the time, when it mattered, when we were being callously manipulated just as we had been manipulated by a lazy media leading up to the war in Iraq.  It it was common knowledge, why did they let them get away with it?

These things matter, journalism matters, which is much more than reporting the "news."