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.

  • Newspaper people are quite frankly not qualified to self-prescribe solutions.

    Read this link to see how the NYT has insulated itself from shareholder accountability.

    I just don’t see how Standard & Poors allowed such a company into the S&P 500 index.

  • “You can call yourself a public servant only if the public thinks you’re serving them.”

    Amazing, you essentially just boiled down the entire problem of contemporary media into one sentence.

    Right now, my perception is the media is serving their own interests. That’s why I trust them less and less.

  • Great work cutting through the spin Jay.

    Now turn that same analysis to the business side, substitute clients for the public and you can see that newspapers don’t appreciate or competently serve the people who provide them with over $40 billion dollars a year to spend on quality journalism.

    I’m sure they blame their advertisers for not appreciating “journalism” or “boldness” instead of addressing the decades of disappointment they’ve served up to business people across every sector.

  • Sorry I meant Jeff

  • greeneyeshade

    I’ve worked with John Carroll and liked him, but I reacted to this post the way I did to Joseph Epstein’s description of newspapers’ marketing strategies as ‘whoring after the uninterested young:’ Ohhh, does the truth hurt.

  • Matt Storin

    Jeff: You make valid points, as in the past, about the ills of the newspaper business, but I think you are missing points in the Carroll speech with which I think you would agree:
    1. He is speaking on behalf of journalists with great skills, investigative in particular, whose livelihoods are threatened yet whose value to society is immeasurable. The old paradigm of media supported these people. It truly is not clear whether the new one will. These are the people who tell us if our government is listening to our phone calls. Yes, it is possible, though not well proved, that the blogosphere might ultimately produce that kind of information, but I don’t think you can blame John for worrying about what happens to those folks.
    2. Lots of journalism has not been popular. The reporting of the early sit-ins and Freedom Riders in the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s was not popular, even among many northerners. The early reports of failure in Vietnam is another example. As a commercial philosophy, shoving news down the throats of the public may not be wise, but historically it has been important on occasion. MSM could do that, for better or worse. Citizen journalists, whatever their value, can’t do some — repeat some — of this work. They also can’t — generally speaking — survive in Baghdad.
    John Carroll is worrying about how this work is going to get done.
    I know you have had some thoughts about this, but it’s not clear to me why you would rip the guy for having these concerns.

  • That’s nice of John to worry. But it does nothing to solve his problem. His handwringing from the pulpit only makes him look weak and not sharp enough to find a solution. What he wants is to become a charity, or worse, some kind of state-supported outfit insulated from the market, from citizens.

    If the work of journalism is so important, then there is a way to make it work in the marketplace. Someone will figure out how to do it. I doubt that person will be John Carroll.

  • Jeff, another excellent post from you.

    I’m interested in how you can know all of this as if it were the alphabet and yet find nothing wrong with the BBC’s model of holding the public at ransom in order to ‘serve’ us in the way they see fit. Are you okay with everyone in the country not being allowed to own a radio or television without ponying up to be ‘served’ by the BBC? I’m genuinely curious.

  • No, I don’t favor tax-supported and government-certified journalism. I think it’s terribly dangerous.

  • Mike Myers

    Carroll says “. . . to campaigns to save Christmas from imaginary enemies, to mass-produced political vituperation. . .”

    Well it’s clear that Carroll knows better than his readers whether Christians and Christmas have enemies or not, and he’ll make the decisions, thank you.

    And as for mass produced political vituperation—what do you think rolls across the presses of the Los Angeles Times on most mornings? The Los Angeles Times under Carroll and his predecessors long ago gave up “just the facts ma’am” style reporting. Bias shows in most stories most days.

    I have no problem with my local paper, whether it’s the Times or something else, having strong opinions and a strong editorial bent. But there’s a place for that–on the editorial pages. When you can’t tell whether you’re reading an editorial or an objective story, you finally decide not to bother sorting the objective truth kernel from the editorial chaff. Carroll and Co. are in the chaff business–and it’s a dying business.

  • biff

    geez, quit getting all hung up on whether carroll’s a `snob’ i’m so sick of whiners like you wanting evryone to pee into the same trough. that’s why we elected the doofus in the white house, because hicks thought he’d be more fun to have a beer with than gore,even though he was en effete ivy league rich kid with an invented texan resume. quit worrying about snobbery, carroll’s correct. bloggers have their place but they also don;t have a clue. NEWSFLASH: journalism SHOULD be snobbish if its to be good. now go back to your blog that no one reads and I only found becasue it was linked to LAOBSERVED, which people do read.

  • Brian O’Connell

    Biff’s not Happy.

  • I read John Carroll’s speech, and while I feel he accurately described the conundrum in the newspaper boardrooms, he seemed to be so quaint in the way he equated paper and ink with journalism, as if it’s the newsprint that makes the craft. How parochial! Can there be travel without trains? Photos without film? Mathematics without slide rules? Art without paint and brush? Of course.

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  • You make valid points, as in the past, about the ills of the newspaper business, but I think you are missing points in the Carroll speech with which I think you would agree: