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American Journalism and News "Business"

THE FADING AMERICAN NEWSPAPER, by Carl E. Lindstrom, Doubleday, pages,

By Peter J. Rothenberg

Anyone who has spent much time in the Boston area must be used to a certain amount of grousing about newspapers. Peter Braestrup, a Nieman Fellow here last year, gave the Boston papers a well-deserved pasting in a Harpers article last fall, and, periodically, gazing at the text of a news conference in the New York Times or at a particularly excruciating four-color picture of Cardinal Cushing on the front page of the Globe, someone will exclaim how bad the Boston press really is.

But the problem of the newspapers is not confined to Boston alone: there are scarcely a half dozen readable, informative daily papers in the entire United States. One Cambridge resident prominent in public affairs, who is particularly distressed about the Boston newspaper situation and its effect on the city's civic life, says he reads the Times of London to keep up with international news. The American daily newspaper is dying at an impressive rate: 76 papers have gone out of existence in the past five years, with three major dailies--the Cleveland News, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph and Detroit Times--and nine smaller papers folding in the past year.

Monopoly Press

Today, the death of a newspaper often leaves a city with a monopoly press: Pittsburgh, for example, had seven dailies in 1923; now there are only two, one morning and one evening. Cleveland, another city of more than a half million, is in the same situation, while Albany, the capital of New York State, has two papers, both under the same ownership. Along with the death of the dailies and the spread of one-paper towns, the past few decades have seen the rise of absentee ownership of newspapers, as the older chains like Hearst, Scripps-Howard and Gannett are joined (and occasionally superseded) by shrewd newcomers like Samuel Newhouse.

The apparent decline of the American press as shown by the statistics, and the very real decay manifested by the quality of the papers that survive, have aroused serious concern among all those who believe in the daily newspaper as something more than a financial venture. Carl Lindstrom, for 40 years a working newspaperman and now a professor of journalism at the University of Michigan, is very clearly one of these believers, and, in The Fading American Newspaper, he tells the press that much of the fault lies with itself, not with technological developments and the competition of television.

Lindstrom's indictment of the American daily is sweeping and complete; he defends newspapers on only one count, that of writing. The newspapers, he says, are the last home of clear, simple English, although he does not approve such journalistic fetishes as the "pyramid style" and the "five W's" leads which second-rate newsmen consider the heart of journalistic form. Lindstrom's difficulty is that his indictment is too broad: not everything is wrong with the daily newspaper, and not all the decay is entirely the newspaper's fault.

In shooting at everything, Lindstrom hits many deserving targets, but he has not taken the trouble to consider carefully why all the evils he points out have come about. Thus, he is unclear about the relationship between the newspaper and its readership, about whether the nature of the society determines the nature of its newspapers or whether the newspapers can mold the tastes and interests of the society. (If the former is the case, there is little point in giving newspaper editors hell for providing the public with what it wants.) And he devotes insufficient attention to the problem of the newsmagazines--how they have responded to a public demand and what they have done to journalism.

Emphasis on Bigness

Instead, he emphasizes the pressure speed the major concern of the newspaper. "The news-room clock is the master of all--and the master excuse. There is always the deadline; there is never time to do the job as well as it ought to be done. If there are typographical errors, misspelled names, or missing facts, it is always because the creation of the modern daily newspaper is a so-called 'miracle' of speed, and the 'wonder' of it all is that there are not more mistakes." Here Lindstrom is pointing at a real mistake of the contemporary press! Why must newspapers go through so many editions? Why, for example, must even the New York Times send up to Boston an early edition in which the coverage of late-breaking stories is farcical, when it produces such an excellent newspaper in its Late City Edition? Why on earth must an "evening" paper have an edition that comes out at ten in the morning?

Pressure of Television

It is technically impossible for the press to compete with radio and television on the question of speed, but it can compete easily and successfully in telling the story well. Television news coverage, except in those cases where the viewer is shown the entire event (with some limited commentary), is inevitably sketchy and incomplete. In fact, the television networks, recognizing this difficulty, are currently attempting to broaden their coverage with news "specials." The newspaper, if it concentrates on presenting a good story rather than on getting something new for each edition, can provide the equivalent of a television special on every major event. Instead, with their last-minute "Bulletins," most newspaper editors give their readers something just as sketchy as an hourly radio broadcast; and if, as the editors apparently assume, the readers have been listening to the radio, the papers are giving them something they have heard already. "A story is a story anytime and will wait for the proper and the best telling. . . . The unbeatable air waves are always there first with their meager most; but first."

All that Lindstrom says about the futility of the newspapers' race with radio and television is quite true: the networks have seen the wisdom of imitating the airwaves. But radio and television, I think, are not the cause of the newspapers' troubles--the competition between the two media is largely illusory. Those who want to know what is going on in the world look to television only for events like national conventions, coronations and inaugurations; on other occasions, except for the specials, television makes no pretension of being an adequate news medium, and interested people must and do look elsewhere.

The problem for the newspapers is that not enough people want to know what is going on in the world, not enough people want an adequate news medium. Thirty years ago, in his Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann noted that news was one commodity for which no one was willing to pay a fair price: "Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper. . . . He will pay a nominal price when it suits him, will turn to another paper when that suits him. Somebody has said quite aptly that the newspaper editor has to be re-elected every day." This casual economic relationship has not changed; most readers place no particular value on good news coverage. In his book on the Washington press corps, The Fourth Branch of Government, Douglass Cater writes that the Washington correspondent is the most expendable man on most newspapers: he does not add to circulation, he exists by indulgence of the publisher, few readers would care if he were replaced by wire service dispatches.

Press and Democratic Process

Now, what both, Lippmann and Cater are concerned with is the relations of the newspaper to the democratic process, and this indeed is the problem of the daily newspaper today, a problem to which Lindstrom pays too little attention.

The newspapers ("with two or three brilliant exceptions"), it is true, do not give a reader enough to make him an informed citizen; but the converse, with which Lindstrom leads off his book, cannot be accepted: "A man no longer needs to read a daily newspaper in order to be well-informed."

The problem is not that the informed citizen is looking outside of the newspapers for his information; the problem rather is that most citizens no longer want to be informal. They are content with the condensed (and often distorted) truth of the newsmagazines, and with the extraneous entertainment features that clutter the pages of modern newspapers. If you believe in supply and demand for the press, the editors and publishers are beyond reproach: they are giving the public just what it wants.

Problem of News Magazines

As Lindstrom says, any story will wait for the right telling, but when he implies that the right telling can be found in the newsmagazines, I must disagree violently. On the contrary, the watered-down news of the newsmagazines is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with journalism. The newsmagazines have abandoned the restrictive pyramid style and write their stories entertainingly, but this does not mean that they tell the news comprehensively or well.

Ostensibly the excuse for the Readers Digest, and for Time the condensed newspaper, was that people didn't have the time to read a newspaper every day with care. If this claim wasn't nonsense when the digests were started, it is surely nonsense now. The American people have more spare time (and spare money) on their hands than ever before; they simply don't choose to use the time and the money to become informed about public affairs. Neither Time nor the New York Times' News of the Week in Review is a substitute for the daily reading of one of Lindstrom's "two or three brilliant exceptions." While I do not agree completely with Lindstrom's bland assertion that "puzzling facts can be explained only by more facts," it is obvious that more facts are preferable to fewer facts.

If there is any place where the story is being told well it is in the great dailies like the Times. Unlike the sloppy material that comes over the Associated Press wire, a Times story is not constructed to be chopped off after any paragraph. It is not just simple writing; it is good writing (and, although Lindstrom does not recognize it, there is a difference between simplicity and quality). But the chief virtue of the Times is the very bulk and solidity that frighten away some prospective readers.

The newsmagazines provide a feeble, condensed version for those who are too lazy to read a good newspaper but who still feel the need to know something (or to think they know something). And, ironically enough, even the newsmagazines have been drawn into the futile game of racing the television networks; Time put out special rush issues on the election and the Inauguration which, although they were written in Time-style, were as sketchy and useless as the early edition of a newspaper. The newsmagazines answer a public demand for concentrated truth; they do not fill the need for the real article.

Journalism as a Business

The daily newspaper remains the only medium both big enough and fast enough to keep the public informed. The reason so few papers have lived up to their function (or perhaps one should properly call it their responsibility) is, as Lindstrom repeatedly notes, that journalism has come to be treated as a business, not as a profession. Last fall, at a CRIMSON dinner for editors of secondary school newspapers, the head of the Boston Associated Press bureau spoke on journalism as a career, referring to it always as the "news business." Journalism at its best is a profession, and an honorable profession. The newspaper through its advertising columns has an important role in the economic life of the society; through its news and editorial pages it also has a central role in the political life of a democratic society. All too often this political responsibility is exchanged for the "business" of newspapering. The trouble is that in this country business is too clean a word: nowhere else would an organization of doctors lobby as shamelessly and as effectively as any industry in behalf of the economic interests of medicine as a business. Journalism, along with the AMA, has forgotten the social responsibilities of being a profession.

The so-called "ethics" of journalism are constructed essentially in self-defense: a newspaper must be "objective," and all statements must be attributed. But objectivity does not require indifference, and attribution is unnecessary if the writer knows that he is saying is true. A newspaper is a citizen, and it should be an interested, outspoken one. It is better to be a William Loeb in Manchester, N. H., and to speak out often and be wrong often, than never to speak out and thus never to be wrong.

A newspaper is an effective political force only within its own community (for papers like the Times, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal, their community is the nation as a whole). In local matters, an aggressive newspaper can expose the sins and oversights of government and can play an important, active role in political life, if it behaves as a respectable citizen. In national affairs, the newspaper's role is more passive: it must, to the best of its resources and abilities, keep its public informed as to what is going on. Few papers are capable of doing much more than sending a man or two to Washington. For other news, they must rely on the wire services. The services do a bad enough job, but the further damage inflicted by local editors who chop AP copy to bits is quite unnecessary. The old saw the "foreign news doesn't sell papers" is sheer hypocrisy in a one-paper town where the editor doesn't have to worry about sales.

Absentee Owners

An absentee owner is not a citizen, and therefore chains (or "groups" as some sensitive owners like to call them) are not good for newspapers, for local autonomy within a chain is always an illusion, as Lindstrom shows in his case study of the Hartford Times under Gannett chain ownership. But the chain is not the only source of weakness: neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald is a chain paper; yet they have grown as fat and lazy as any chain or monopoly sheet.

The Herald, as a matter of fact, is a classic example of something we might call "brand-name journalism," as opposed to the "chain-store" variety offered by the large groups. The Herald has latched onto a very good wire service, the New York Times service, and with that as its main strongpoint, has more or less given up being a newspaper at all. It runs entertainment features like puzzles and comics, a small amount of local news and sports, and acts as the middleman for the Times service and the Boston reading public.

So the fault is not entirely with the chains nor entirely with the one-paper cities. It is, once again, a question of attitude and professional pride. And although Lindstrom throws a few arrows where they are not deserved (notably at the trend toward "interpretive writing") and a few compliments where they have not been earned, his book is a useful assault of the complacent "news business." Of course, it is doubtful that anyone will give him the respectful hearing his complaints merit. When he expressed a few of his opinions in speeches while still Executive Editor of the Hartford Times, Lindstrom was politely "asked" to shut up or retire. Journalism, it seems, has no use for intelligent, conscientious critics.

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