Thursday, June 26, 2008

Newspapers are a sacred trust

Newspapers are a sacred trust; the worship of money is not.

Years ago, a guy named Joe Murray told an in-service seminar at the New Haven Register that "the freedom of the press belongs to the guy who owns the press."

There are two thing amazing about that. First, Murray earned a Pulitzer Prize when editor of the tiny Lufkin Daily News in Texas. Second, there were in-service seminars at the Register.

What Murray said is more true now than when he said it nearly 30 years ago. The trouble is that few people or organizations can afford to own that press anymore.

Please see a previous post on the subject:

The Hartford Courant, the paper that prides itself as the nation's oldest newspaper in continuous circulation, is suffering from the same malaise as the Register and just about every other paper in this nation. Too little money, too much cost and owners who have paid too much to acquire them.

So who suffers? We do. Bad as they are, serious newspapers still stand way, way above other news-delivery methods, especially for local news.

My stomach turned last night as I saw a television reporter gush about the start of yet another high school in the city. Yes, the city will pay only 10 percent of the cost, but we're still talking about millions of dollars the city doesn't have. There were no questions, no attempts find out if the city really needs this school Maybe it does, but this reporter seemed more interested in his closing than the facts of the story. And that story was one of the better-reported stories.

Bloggers fill a hole, but how many worry about the facts? How many so-called news sources worry about at least the shadow of objectivity. Following-up on stories? Please.

I remember decades ago when a friend who was assignment editor at a local television station was crying the blues because his reporters were coming into the work ignorant about what was going on and just stood by his desk and asked, "What ya got for me?" I could chuckle because my reporters covered their beats and told me what they had.

Television has apparently not improved much on that score, except that reporters now listen to the police and fire scanners and head out to crime, fire and accident scenes. How many times have I heard print reporters making cop calls and asking the person on the police or fine desk "Is there any news?"

Today, in too many newsrooms, reporters ask the city editor (if there is a city editor), "What ya got for me?" The harried editor hands over a press release from some politician or municipal official or interest group. The reporter writes up the release, maybe makes a call or two for comment or, if the reader is lucky, to someone who may shed a different light on the story.

Too often, the reporter files the rewritten release, perhaps with reaction, probably with a line saying that so and so didn't return phone calls looking for comment. Then the reporter goes on to the next of the too-many stories he or she must cover for the day. The editor glances at the story, runs spell-check, and hands it over to the news desk.

If the reader is lucky, it goes to the copy desk, if the paper has one. Too many papers combine news and copy desks.

I remember a guy named John Bremmer, a professor at the University of Kansas and one of the best editing teachers ever, told a copy editing seminar to which the Register sent some editors (really), that the copy editor was the goalie, the backstop, the last person who sees a story before it goes in the paper.

Sadly, there is little money for good copy editors, or often any copy editors, these days. There was even an obit of sorts for copy editors in The New York Times, written by Lawrence Downes, a member of the Times editorial board.

What that means it that there isn't anyone making sure that the story says Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri, not Kansas City. It means there isn't anyone making sure of that percentage on which the reporter based a story is accurate, that the mayor's name is spelled right, and that Main Street in New Haven is in the East Shore, not downtown.

All this costs money. The guy who bought the company that owns the Courant (and the New Haven Advocate) is looking to save money, or at least lose less. He's even thinking about selling the Tribune Tower in Chicago (he is a real estate man after all).

Nobody is going to be harmed because the desk doesn't know that there is no Edgewood Street in New Haven, but there is an Edgewood Way.

But you might be hurt by the lack of a check for fairness on a story. You might be interested to know if your newspaper's editor has a stake in that real estate project, or a news person thinks of him or herself as an advocate rather than an objective journalist, or at least lets the reader know how he or she perceives his or her role.

I remember after the Jacksons sold the New Haven Register to Ingersoll and Tom Geyer became editor and publisher. He soon was persuaded to join Chamber of Commerce committees.

Staff members told him he needed to be objective as editor, but if he just wanted to be publisher, he could join any committees he wanted. To his credit, he chose to remain editor and gave up the committees, even though they were quite prestigious.

What's money got to do with any of this? Everything. With enough money, you get enough space to tell the stories that need to be told, the hire the staff needed to put out the best possible paper and the resources to cover the news.

When a paper is struggling, the publisher might not have the choice of telling an big car advertiser that he's not going to fire the person who tried his cars and found them lacking. The editor might have to fire the reporter who wrote what the big shot said, not what he later said he meant.

It's a sad turn of events and it couldn't come at a worse time. The nation is in trouble, no matter what the cheerleaders at FOX News say. People are being squeezed.

Yesterday, a person on National Public Radio reported that the Federal Reserve said it was afraid of inflation and might raise interest rates. The Fed was afraid of inflation because of high fuel prices. The average person is being squeezed by high fuel prices, and now the Fed wants to add higher interest rates to the suffering? But nobody thought to ask the question.

There are fewer questions being asked when there should be more.

And that's how the money squeeze on newspapers really hurts.

Until next time...

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