Yes, I’m going to tackle the issue of the media again, but it has nothing to do with Alabama football, so feel free to skip this post!
OK. You were warned.
What is wrong with the newspaper business? You could start with the self-important writers at the Wall Street Journal. About 200 Wall Street Journal employees did not show for work Thursday morning to protest the potential sale of the company to Rupert Murdoch.
Apparently these journalists are upset Murdoch would somehow taint the editorial purity of the Journal.
In fairness to the Journal, I consider it one of the finest newspapers in the world. It provides better coverage of most issues than the New York Times. However, the Journal isn’t as good as one of Murdoch’s papers.
The finest newspaper in the world is the Times of London. If I were forced to rank newspapers, I’d go with the Times of London, the Financial Times (London), and the Wall Street Journal. I’d make these rankings based on quality of the writing, importance of the content and attractiveness of the print editions. You can check out most of today’s front pages from around the world by visiting the Newseum.org.
The basic premise of those self-important striking journalists is the idea Murdoch is a conservative and has dared to let his conservative ideals warp coverage in the New York Post and the Fox News Channel. Yeah, like the New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times aren’t biased toward the liberal sideâ€”and I don’t hear many complaints from journalists about those newspapers.
Another strike against him is that Murdoch has the audacity to tell the truth. Like he did in an interview in Time Magazine: “CNN is pretty consistently on the left, if you look at their choice of stories, what they play up. It’s not what they say. It’s what they highlight.” (CNN, which is also owned by Time Warner, hotly disputes this charge.) Then he mumbles conspiratorially, “And if you look at our general news, do we put on things which favor the right rather than the left? I don’t know.” Has Murdoch just said what I think he said? Has he flirted with an admission that Fox News skews right? If so, he quickly backs away. “We don’t think we do. We’ve always insisted we don’t. I don’t think we do. Aw, it’s subjective. Neither side admits it.”
I’ve argued for years that newspapers show their bias not through inaccurate reporting (though there is plenty of that going around), but through story selection. What you assign your reporters to cover is a good indicator of your political leaningsâ€”what winds up on the front page speaks volumes for a newsroom’s priorities.
And that is a good thing. Newspapers need to be biased, but instead of pretending to be balanced they should admit when they are pressing an issue. I don’t have a problem when a newspaper stands up and says, “We don’t like corruption.” The public benefits when newspapers take clear stands and force politicians to deal with these priorities.
But this brings us to the oft asked question of why newspapers are in decline. Is it that paper is outdated?
Not hardly. Ask Bloomsbury how many Harry Potter books they are printing. Ask many of the new alternative publications from news weeklies to lifestyle magazines how newsprint is for them. You’ll find they are doing very well.
Then what is the issue? Well, many adults don’t see newspapers as providing anything of value.
And why is that?
Because they don’t.
Newspapers which go through the motions, sending reporters to meetings and publishing human interest stories are the problem. Despite what the public says about wanting all nice stories, it really wants hard news.
And that’s something that Murdoch understands: He has little taste for the quirky “A-head” stories that run in the center columns. “To have these esoteric, well-written stories on Page One every day is great,” he says, in a tone of voice that implies it’s not so great. “But I still think you want some hard news. I’d try to keep many more of them for the weekend. I’m sick of putting the Journal aside because I don’t have time to get through these stories.” He might also relaunch the Saturday edition with a glossy magazine section.
People want news that matters. It doesn’t always have to be about corporate takeovers or national security. The location of a news fire station can be just as important in a small town as a billion dollar buyout in New York. The problem is that newspapers have failed to deliver real news on a consistent basis. Many days during the week I find myself putting aside the Birmingham News because they don’t have any real news.
And I’m not wanting to be critical of the Birmingham News. I like the paper, but sometimes it fails to really understand what is and isn’t a big story. For instance, take the subversion of our values going on in the Town of Argo. The Birmingham News has covered the Argo fiasco (where the town council has used public funds to fight the right of the people to vote on the future of the Town) but it hasn’t given it the attention the story demands.
It is great copy, but it is buried inside the paper. It is great copy because local officials are telling residents to screw off. It is great copy because it shows the dangers when governments pursue their own self-interest instead of following the law. It is good copy because it shows how dangerous it can be giving local government more powers (ie: it is an argument against increased local autonomy.)
Local officials flouting the public’s right to vote: That is page one material, but instead the News relegates it to the local news section.
And the local news weeklies serving Argo have failed to cover the story aggressively. They haven’t editorialized enough about how corrupt it is for the town’s officials to use town money to sue its own citizens in a bid to prevent an election. The local news weeklies haven’t examined the pros or cons of dissolving the town.
In other words, the newspapers serving the area haven’t done what newspapers are supposed to doâ€”provide didactic stories and editorials on a major issue for the community and surrounding counties (Jefferson and St. Clair).
So getting back to the original point, newspapers are having troubles not because of people like Rupert Murdoch. Newspapers are having trouble because reporters and editors aren’t doing their jobsâ€”they are too busy not showing up for work.