Speaking to a convention of ostriches

John Carroll — former editor of the LA Times and now a Knight visiting lecturer at Harvard — climbs up to the pulpit to preach to the choir at the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He chants the rant you hear from too many editors today — that greedy shareholders (that is, the public in an open market) don’t appreciate journalism as much as they should. “The conflict between those who serve the reader and those who serve the shareholder might seem a bit abstract, but it’s important,” Carroll says. “It affects the way we see ourselves as editors, and the way we behave. It inhibits us when we ought to be bold.”

Come down from the pulpit, Mr. Carroll — and watch that first step, it’s a doozie. Let’s look at how most journalism in most papers on most days is executed: What boldness is needed in sports? In movie reviews? In TV listings? In cutting-and-pasting wire-service stories? In retyping press releases in the business section? In attending and regurgitating press conferences? In writing fluffy lifestyle stories? In gardening columns? In comics? Carroll chants the oft-cited notion that journalism comes only from newspapers: “This is our role: Newspapers dig up the news. Others repackage it.” Well, that is often true and I do not want to lose that digging. But let’s be clear that newspapers aren’t the only ones who can dig; in fact, I argue that they should be enabling more in the community to dig with them — and then they’d have more journalism to repackage. And again, let’s make clear that most days on most pages most newspapers do themselves repackage — from wire services and press releases and now even from the internet. Now I don’t have anything against most of that; in fact, the more useful the type on a page is to a reader’s life, the better, and the more efficient papers can be with what doesn’t matter so they can concentrate on what does matter — local reporting — the better. But let’s not pretend that editors’ every working hour is consumed with high acts of journalism: investigating wrongdoing in government and standing up for Everyman. I just returned from Florida and the local papers I read there were as thin in size as they were in substance. Weak and shallow broth. That makes up far more of the work of journalism in America than we want to admit or than Carroll and his convening brethren want to hear. But they know it. It’s their job. So I’m tired of hearing this economically naive and essentially snobbish complaint: that journalism deserves some special pass as a public-interest charity.

Or perhaps that’s a fine idea. Perhaps the high-minded investigation should be produced by a separate, nonprofit foundation that seeks donations from the public — uh-oh, them again — to maintain its work, its independence, its credibility, its dignity. Then the papers could be the conduits of everyday stuff and the marketing and distribution vehicles that they are — and, indeed, should be. But they get gifts of investigative journalism from local versions of the Center for Public Integrity, a national not-for-profit investigative journalism organization.

Ah, but the only problem with that is that then editors of newspapers can no longer act as if they are God’s gifts to their communities, the knights protecting the town from evil sheriffs. And that, unfortunately, is what much of this is about: editorial ego and a desire to be separated from economic reality.

Carroll continues:

With the shrinking of the newspaper’s purpose, we have seen a shrinking of the newspaper journalist. Even outside the corporation we have lost stature. We might see ourselves as public servants, but does the public see us that way?

When you stick your head in the sand, it must hurt your eyes. Yes, journalists have lost stature “even outside the corporation,” among the public (yes, them again). But that has nothing to do with stock prices. It has to do with the quality of journalism and service papers provide. You can call yourself a public servant only if the public thinks you’re serving them.


Like many of you, I’ve been worrying lately. What will become of us? More important, what will become of our newspapers? More important still, what will become of the kind of public-service journalism that newspapers produce?And, vastly more important than all that: What will the public know – and what will the public not know – if our poorly understood, and often unappreciated, craft perishes in the Darwinian jungle?

If it’s “poorly understood and often unappreciated,” wouldn’t that be your fault? And I’d say a “Darwinian jungle” is a good place where higher lifeforms emerge.


We have a mission ahead of us, and we need to be rigorously clear-headed…It is not merely to produce good stories. It is not merely to save our newspapers. It is – and this may sound grandiose – to save journalism itself.

Not from the public and not from the marketplace but in some cases from the journalists themselves.

Mind you, Carroll was the editor who cut the LA Times’ Orange County bureau from 200 to 20 so he could expand Washington and Iraq coverage: editorial ego over local service.

But what we hear from Carroll is ultimately a disrespect for the public he so wants to serve. Answering his own rhetorical question, are editors necessary?, he says:

I am happy to respond to this critique, and positively overjoyed to be doing so here in the city of Seattle. For it was here in Seattle that the readers spoke loud and clear last year about the kind of news they wanted. In case you missed it, the most-visited story on the Seattle Times Web site in the year 2005 concerned a man – and I’ll try to put this delicately – a man who paid the ultimate price…for having an illicit relationship…with a horse.
There you have it. You don’t need to look any further to see where editing by referendum takes you. It takes you to tabloid-land, to Angelina Jolie, to Brad Pitt, to the lurid murder of the week, to campaigns to save Christmas from imaginary enemies, to mass-produced political vituperation, to a whole cornucopia of sexual indiscretions, and – in Seattle, at least – to bestiality. The question here is whether a newspaper ought to lead or to follow. Should a newspaper actually stand for anything? Or should it be a transparent vessel for the truisms and vulgarities of the age?

So that is what listening to the public means to Carroll: corruption.