Walter Pincus: More than economics behind newspapers’ decline

7 05 2009

pincusWashington Post veteran Walter Pincus writes in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Newspaper Narcissism … Our pursuit of glory led us away from readers.”

Editors have paid more attention to what gains them prestige among their journalistic peers than on subjects more related to the everyday lives of readers. …

We have also failed our readers in the way we cover government. The First Amendment not only guaranteed freedom of the press from government interference, it also gave American journalists the opportunity—I believe the responsibility—to find and present facts on issues that require public attention. Our press is not protected in order to merely echo the views of government officials, opposition politicians, and so-called experts. …

Meanwhile, we have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose—to be the news of the day. Many of our headlines come from events created by public relations—press conferences, speeches, press releases, canned reports, and, worst of all, snappy comments by “spokesmen” or “experts.” To serve as a counterpoint, we need reporters with expertise. …

[Americans] should remember that “newsmakers” are intent on using the media to influence readers, listeners, and viewers to take up their ideas. The electronic and print media today probably have more power over public opinion—and thus government—than they had fifty years ago. But I fear they turn much of that power over to those who create news events to get coverage.

Pincus’ conclusion, that “the press should play an activist role,” is beyond dispute. The question is how, and that gets us back to economics. Money-losing newspapers slash news staff, depriving themselves of the “expertise” he cries for. Absent that, they rely more and more on PR-generated content. An activist press staffed by expert reporters qualified to make independent judgments (as opposed to he said/she said journalism) requires a long-term commitment and investment of resources. Who’s going to do that these days?

The full article also is worth reading for Pincus’ take on prize-seeking  journalism and its disservice to readers. It’s true that over the past decade, there have been some high-quality, enterprising, investigative projects by newspapers. The Post‘s investigation of Walter Reed Medical Center comes to mind. However, newspapers too frequently package these as one-edition blockbusters, with a volume that few readers penetrate. Almost no newspapers pursue the ongoing investigations with day-by-day findings, like the Post‘s Watergate project, which Pincus justifiably cites as the high-point of  journalism. Remember, most installments of that series were digestible pieces, with the day’s news sitting atop a background wrapup of “A-copy.” It required an investment of no more than a few minutes each day to keep up.

Hat tip to F Matthew Frederick




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