They fiddle while papers burn

I once worked for a top editor of the Chicago Tribune who would write the headline for an investigation before a bit of reporting was done. Fresh out of journalism school, I was shocked, as well I should have been. Does journalism spring from reporting and information or from marketing scripts? This guy wanted to sell his views and his papers; he was always in search of a victim he could exploit for marketing. The paper wasn’t tabloid sized but it might as well have been. Ironic that that came at Tribune Company, for now we have Frontline committing similar acts of premeditated journalism about Tribune Company and its paper, the LA Times.

The Frontline documentary News Wars was, in my opinion, suspect in many ways, making cheap shots to fits its preformed agenda and narrative of the war between bloggers and professional journalists, between journalists and big, bad business people, all supported with visually rhetorical blunderbussing (e.g., mention online people and personify them with the geek who lipsyncs rather than the people who do good work online… make the publisher of the LA Times, a Tribune company executive, look like a dork while lionizing the departed editors without questioning their stewardship….).

But the reaction from the LA Times is equally warped. The current editor dissed an investor quoted on the show, saying that he couldn’t know what high-and-mighty journalism is (I happen to agree with the investor over the editor; the LA Times should be serving LA, damnit). And now LA Times media writer Tim Rutten chimes in with his agenda chorus. Rutten complains, “The paper’s editorial and business staffs have been substantially reduced, as has the amount of space allocated to journalism.” Was it all journalism? Was any of it fluff or commodity news or stock tables or TV listings or just plain inefficiency? Journalism is such a nicely haughty word. He continues:

The documentary also introduced its viewers to a guy who pretty much personifies the forces that are undermining American newspapers owned by publicly traded corporations. In this case, the voice belonged to Charles K. Bobrinskoy, vice chairman and director of research for Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-based money management firm whose 6% stake in Tribune makes it the company’s fourth-largest stockholder.

According to the transcript of Bobrinskoy’s interview, which is posted on “Frontline’s” website, he believes the “problem” with the Los Angeles Times is that its editors and writers only care about being read by their “peers across the country, by politicians in New York and Washington, by people who give away Pulitzer Prizes.” The Times’ editors, he told Bergman, have “decided that they have to be a national newspaper with international coverage. They’ve got over 20 foreign bureaus, including bureaus in Istanbul and Cairo. Nobody is reading the L.A. Times wanting to find out what’s happening in Istanbul….

“The demand is for a very strong, high-quality, local newspaper, focused on the things that people in L.A. care about: style, Hollywood entertainment, local government, local sports, local issues like immigration…. All of the Mexican American immigration issues should be front and center in the L.A. Times.”

Worst of all, according to Bobrinskoy, the Los Angeles Times has been wasting its time trying to explain to you “why Bush went to war in Iraq,” when all you wanted to know was what to wear to the next premiere and how many points Kobe scored last night. That’s because at Ariel Capital, “we’re saying that’s a role for probably three national newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. Each has its own niche. All three are national newspapers. We don’t think there’s any demand for a fourth.”

Those of you who were hoping to find out about the world and the rest of the United States by reading the Los Angeles Times will be just as happy when you realize that what you really want is to be well dressed.

For the sake of his clients, one can only hope Bobrinskoy knows more about picking stocks than he does about L.A. and Southern California.

Meow. Scratch. Meow. Well, I’d say that Brobinskoy is not who “personifies the forces that are undermining American newspapers.” Newspapers are quite neatly doing themselves in, thank you very much, by serving ego over communities.

All this fingerpointing from Frontline to journalism’s enemies and then from the Times to the Times’ enemies is just so damned wasteful. The world has changed, people, and bitching about it won’t change that or stop the change.

This was the main complaint I had with the Frontline crew. They utterly missed the story. They wanted the story they wanted: NEWS WARS! They were as presumptively tabloidy as that Tribune editor I used to work for. And their subjects at the LA Times were all too willing to play victims.

Bullshit. It’s a business. It’s a new media world. Wake up and figure out what to do about it. Stop whining and moaning and mewlling and meowing.

Rutten also complains, properly, that editor O’Shea was not included in the Frontline finished product. Go read the partial transcripts of interviews that Frontline quite transparently put up and you’ll find lots of people and views that were sliced out of the documentary (my friend Jay Rosen, who can always be guaranteed to deliver a new and intellectually stimulating view got in for a sentence, I think; lots of other views were cut when the Frontline people could have found new ways to draw attention to what they had to contribute). Frontline over-reported in the field and then under-reported on the screen. They used what they wanted to use to sell their agenda, just like that Tribune editor.

This is why the news business is in a mess, in a microcosm.

What I wish we’d seen — from both Frontline and from the LA Times — is creative solutions to the news industry’s problems and innovative uses of new opportunities. Instead, all we get is a chorus of complaint.

: LATER: Here’s a thought for Frontline: It’s laudable that they made transcripts available. But what would be truly innovative would be to make all their footage available — something I challenged to do when I was intereviewed — so we can remix it and show them the different story that exists right under their nose,

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Perhaps you would like to comment on the remarks in the show of Google CEO Eric Schmidt who said that almost all the news stories gathered by services like his originate with the newspapers.

    You consistently slight the need for investigative journalism of the type that requires many months of work to produce a story. Only an organization that has a flow of money from other areas can afford to fund this type of work. The broadcast media hasn’t done a good job of entering this area, most of their investigative stories seem tied to some personal injustices. Uncovering institutional malfeasance is much harder.

    This type of reporting has been the area to suffer the most. Nobody misses a story that isn’t investigated since it was buried to begin with. The newspapers may be failing in their own model, but there has been little in the way of innovative ideas as to how this role, at least, is going to remain in the new frontier.

  • http://editor.blogspot.com Howard Weaver

    I’m with Jeff on his main point here, though we disagree on some specifics: the narrative theme for coverage of the emerging media transformation has already been scripted, and various interests can be counted on to regularly chime in with reporting predictably supporting their view.

    This is bad journalism … and bad *for* journalism, too. If editors and reporters buy into this superficial view, we’ll never made the changes necessary to sustain the mission (which is, Jeff, more than a business).

    As Abe Lincoln once said, in the midst of a far more profound transformation, “We must disenthrall oursevles, and then we will save out country.”

  • Hasan Jafri

    I agree with Jeff.

    One of new media’s missions is to level the playing field by giving individuals across ( dumb AND smart people just like dumb AND smart newspapers; remember there are some very dumb newspapers and old media outlets) the tools to harvest and present their own content. This has happened easily in some areas, such as opinion and commentary. It hasn’t happened fully in the case of investigative or so called “enterprise” reporting, which is labor intensive and requires modes of access – to people and documents – that individual bloggers simply don’t have yet.

    Frontline loaded the deck by showcasing precisely this kind of “investigative” or “in depth” work: Scads of people, dozens of interviews left on the cutting room floor, big hype for coverage in the run up to the show, etc. People, especially older Americans of the Woodwardian age, react favorably to this kind of reporting because they have been coached to think simply because a news outlet has access to “powerful” sources it has the goods. Access and gratuitously pompous interviewing techniques become a rhetorical device for locating authority within a journalistic text or broadcast. The trouble is this approach is old and tired and no longer works well. Every overbloated nvestigative or “enterprise” piece is not Watergate.

    New media will catch up with “enterprise journalism,” just as Google caught up with search engine design. As news delivery fragments, and younger audiences get all their content from targeted searches, feeds and customized news mashups, anyone will be able sit at a computer and create as good if not better content than Frontline. In two years, we’re looking at an online investigative journalism platform as good, if not better, than its dead tree ancestors. It will require online access to documents and sources, but in many ways that already exists.

  • http://www.oliverwillis.com Oliver Willis

    Who are these magical online outfits doing good original reporting, Jeff? You can’t argue with Frontline for not promoting something that doesn’t yet exist. I slam the Washington Post all the time (I felt they were useful pawns in the rush to war), but their reporting on Walter Reed is already one of the top news events of the year and has had an actual effect on the lives of many. I don’t think any blogger or independent online journalist has had anything close to that.

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  • http://www.phillyfuture.org Karl

    “Every overbloated investigative or “enterprise” piece is not Watergate.”

    Right. Exactly. Sometimes its a local expose on state funded assisted living homes that comprises an investigative series – and its *these* stories that require legal, and financial resources to pursue. In particular because they are the kinds of stories that fall thru the cracks – about subject matter that might not be comfortable for anyone to hear about.

    Jeff, I agree with ya – it’s sad that the Frontline piece concentrated too much on the “us versus them” angle – but for once I heard some concern that the business model no longer works – as Robert Feinman and Oliver Willis also point out.

    Like you say here “It’s a business. It’s a new media world. Wake up and figure out what to do about it. ”

    Right. Absolutely. Otherwise, pieces like the Inquirer one I just linked to are less likely to be produced, and received by those that need to see them.

  • http://rwrld.blogspot.com/ Ron Davison

    I remember reading about a guy who made drive-in movies in the 70s. He supposedly made movie posters and would ask kids, “Which movie would you pay to watch?” Once he had his answer, he’d put together the team, starting with the guy who wrote the script. Some businesses know their audience better than they know the story.

    I still don’t understand why these newspaper monopolies that got 50% profit margins for decades suddenly deserve to be talked about as if they were an endangered species.

  • http://www.roryoconnor.org Rory O’Connor

    Jeff got it right again, IMHO. I blogged the Frontline series Feb 13 — http://www.roryoconnor.org/blog/?p=234 — and found it to be “good news, bad news time again.”

    The good news is Frontline devoting an impressive four-and-a half hours of national prime time to the overall subject of the “future of the news.”
    The bad news is that the series contains very little that is either new or news. Moreover, ‘News War’ is more about the war than about the news,as Jeff’s headline story illustrates.

    I really wanted to recommend this series and commend Frontline for putting so many resources behind it. But I simply couldn’t–the programming obviously sounded like a good idea in its conception, but in execution it’s actually just another missed opportunity.

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