The Fall of Journalism
In the past 30-plus years I've interviewed dozens of candidates for jobs in journalism. Among the questions I always posed is this one: Why are newspapers published?
To date, no journalism school graduate has known the answer, which is, of course, to make money for the publisher.
Last year I participated in a get-together with journalism students from the local college. I asked my question and received the same b.s. answers as always ("To... uh... provide the community with a voice?")
When I told the students the answer, the instructor disagreed and repeated the same nonsense his students had already provided.
Mine was a common sense observation, gently delivered. As a friend of mine recently wrote, "If you want to see heads explode, try explaining to people that they are not the customer and the newspaper is not the product... advertisers are the customer and reader attention is the product."
If you were to run that past your typical journalism school faculty, the resulting cranial detonations would register on the geology department's seismometer.
And yet it is entirely, one hundred percent true.
We in the newsroom should have no illusions. Our entire purpose is to fill the "news hole," which is the space left over after the advertisements have been placed on the page.
That's the fact that underlies Seinfeld's comical observation: "It's amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper."
It's all driven by advertising.
If newspapers serve the public, that is a happy side effect of the first goal of making money. And indeed, serving the public is wholly contingent on making money.
How these simple facts escape the notice of journalism students and journalism professors is obvious. They live in never-never land, where the facts of life are secondary to ideological engagement.
The professors are busily preparing their young charges to take verbal arms against the world's injustices, as defined by the world's professors. The result is what Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby recently described as a "lack of ideological diversity" found within most American newsrooms. Jacoby listed the common attributes, including "the reflexive support for Democrats, the distaste for religion and the military, the cheerleading for liberal enthusiasms from gun control to gay marriage ...."
Why it requires four years to prepare young journalists to go out and save the world -- that is, to remake it in their philosophical image -- is beyond me.
I have never taken a course in journalism, which I regard as a boon to my career and particularly to my reporting. I'm occasionally told by a superior, "That's not the way it's done." When I ask why, the answer invariably is, "because I was taught you shouldn't do it that way."
Business owners may recoil at the comment. I hope they do. After all, no more dangerous words are ever spoken in business than, "that's not the way we do it here."
The result, in part, is a stylistic model that refuses to fully engage with the reader.
Do you know why this sentence would be struck through by a copy editor?
Because I used the word "you." The editor would much prefer, "Readers might be surprised to learn this sentence would be struck through by a copy editor."
In the current media age, where rank exhibitionism is celebrated, we in the newspaper biz remain too dainty to utilize the enormous engaging power of the second person.
Of course, everyone overvalues the academic training they've received. It makes the debt, hassle, and spent time seem worthwhile, or at least less futile.
And imagine the thrill of using "lede," which is the new spelling of lead, as in the opening sentence of a story. Its use provides the pleasing sensation of possessing specialized knowledge, knowledge well beyond the ken of the average Joe.
That is particularly pleasant to those who know so very little about everything else.
For example, I always ask job candidates a second question: "What is the difference between regulation and legislation?"
Only one j-school graduate has ever known the answer. That was because, he sheepishly provided, he had worked as a legislative assistant the summer prior.
Tell me, please. How do you prepare a student for a career as a "government watchdog" and fail to provide the most fundamental instruction in how government works?
As befits their lofty status and lofty purpose, journalists work under a lofty ethical construct. Unfortunately, it is as flawed and juvenile as their journalistic purpose.
On occasion the ethical imperatives are simply incompatible, for example: 1) saving the world and 2) journalistic objectivity.
This illustrates perfectly an important fact: journalistic ethics weren't arrived at philosophically or accidentally.
As is the case with many codes of ethics, the ethics of those in the journalism industry have as one of their primary purposes the maintenance of the status quo, particularly the economic status quo.
Though it's largely falling by the wayside, older readers will recall that American attorneys formerly avoided advertising. It worked beautifully as a means of diminishing competition, both in pricing and in attracting new clients.
For a journalism equivalent, consider that most American newsrooms operate separately from the "commercial" aspects of the enterprise. The putative purpose is to ensure the reporters aren't influenced by the grubby exchange of cash going on elsewhere in the building. They are to operate as if the local banks aren't in fact buying full page advertisements, thus freeing them to pursue questions regarding bankerly incompetence or corruption as assiduously as among those who don't advertise.
It doesn't work so well in practice.
However, it does play to the notion widely held by newsroom denizens that most businesses are corrupt, or at least questionable. All business owners are regarded as "greedy."
Reporters find the entire notion of maximizing profits a bit dicey.
Recall now that reporters aren't working for similar rewards as those in business. They are out to save the world.
Newspaper owners have for centuries utilized this leaning to pay reporters peanuts. In fact reporters are the lowest paid among occupations that require a college degree. In most places they earn 40-50 percent less than the local librarian.
The newspaper owners benefit greatly from the naiveté of those in their newsroom. They're not going to say a word.
And then there is the notion of "objectivity," another utterly ludicrous ethical concept, and one that is similarly highly useful in generating profits.
There is no such thing as journalistic objectivity. (For a detailed explanation, see "Why the News Makes You Angry.")
Prior to the late 1800s every small town in America had one or more newspapers, with each serving a particular religious, social or political constituency.
Then "objectivity" was introduced. The result wasn't objective news, but rather news that was found unobjectionable by all.
Insipid news and comment proved to be a great business model because it was sold to the public as purely factual, utterly untainted by bias.
Consumers trusted it. They lapped it up.
Objective news was and remains a joke, but Americans continue to believe it exists.
People who watch CNBC will tell you it's objective. Fox viewers believe they're hearing the unvarnished truth.
How are these same people expected to penetrate the more sophisticated bias of the New York Times?
Most news consumers believe the news they're receiving is "objective" simply because they're told it is. It's a well-known psychological phenomenon, commonly referred to as a "big lie."
The Society of Professional Journalists provides a nice wrap-up of the whole ball of journalistic ethical wax on its website www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
You will note that "professional journalists" -- whatever that means -- are required to, "Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so."
Whatever that means.
And finally, journalists are required to "Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media."
If ever there were an argument for the value of online pajama journalists, this should put an end to it.
For decades the mainstream media worked in a bubble, utterly free from scrutiny by others. We have all seen the results.
Our daily lives are diminished by them.
And it all resulted from a gentleman's agreement: We won't look at you if you don't look at us. And we must never, ever take a critical look at our own operations.
Now, thankfully, that model has been torn asunder, not by professional journalists but rather by amateurs.
Dilettantes, my colleagues would condescendingly call them -- if their vocabulary was sufficient.
Me, I love these folks. They are finally forcing accountability on a uniquely powerful industry that for far too long practiced its sometimes dark arts out of the public eye.
Theodore Dawes was a reporter, editor, and publisher for more than 30 years. These days he's a consultant and speaker on media relations. For more of his columns, see Theodore Dawes. To contact Ted, drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.