Friday, July 07, 2006

How a newspaper works and how it doesn't

Disclaimer: Yes, I work for a newspaper chain. I've worked for four of them, including the NYTimes chain, which used to own the Santa Barbara News-Press.

When people complain about the local paper, the lack of local ownership is often one of the issues, whether it's relevant or not. These days, folks in Santa Barbara might wish their local paper was still owned by folks in ... New York City??!!

A sizable chunk of the news staff walked out this week because they've had it with the (local) owner. Some of the complaints are complex. Some aren't.

Let's play "You make the call." Your editorial page editor is arrested on a DUI charge. Do you:

A. Give the story as much play as you gave the DUI arrest of a local politician.

B. Try to squelch the story, then eventually promote this guy to be acting publisher, then give him much more free rein than a publisher should be given to interfere in the newsroom. (Particularly a publisher who used to be an editorial page guy!)

You can probably guess what happened.

The funny thing -- up until this point in the story, I just found the whole thing amusing. Here's where I got mad.

The ex-editorial page editor, current acting publisher and recent DUI defendant (remember, all the same person) published a "Note to Readers" about the situation:

We are fortunate in Santa Barbara to have local ownership and management under Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger. In far too many cities across the United States, a few newspaper chains dominate the marketplace. We are pleased to be an independent voice in Santa Barbara that provides varying and different viewpoints that are not called in to us from Back East, Down South or even another country.
It's bad enough in my eyes when politicians say things they know to be patently bullshit because they know most people can't see through it. When an alleged journalist does it, I take that person behind the woodshed.

Let's explain the function of most newspaper chains, including the News-Press' former owner, the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. They buy newspapers because they want to make money. Owning a lot of newspapers also helps a chain create a healthy wire service, and those papers are able to share resources.

The big chains absolutely do not dictate editorial coverage. Not "editorial coverage" in the sense of the editorial page, not "editorial coverage" in the sense of the newsroom. When I scratched out sports columns for an NYTRNG paper, I ran them by the sports editor sitting three feet away, not some guy hidden in an underground bunker in New York.

If someone were pulling all the strings by remote control, the editorial page and the newsroom would both be compelled to follow suit. Let me let you in on a little secret: Reporters and copy editors generally make fun of the editorial page folks. The editorial page speaks for a newsroom as much as a dog speaks for a cat. Sure, they'll agree every now and then on a simple topic such as whether your food looks good enough to steal from your plate. But that's about it.

Case in point: Last weekend on Meet the Press, Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood distanced himself from the WSJ's recent edit-page rant about the NYTimes (you know, that whole government surveillance story that is Topic A in mediapolitical circles but has barely registered among people who have lives):
First of all, that editorial wasn’t kidding when they said there’s a separation between the news and the editorial pages at The Wall Street Journal.

Secondly, there is a very large gap between the ideological outlook and philosophy of The New York Times editorial page and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. There is not a large ideological gap between the news staffs of those two places, and why would there be? Some of the top people of The New York Times were hired from The Wall Street Journal. What I found shocking about the editorial was the assertion that The New York Times did not act in good faith in making that judgment. I don’t know anybody on the news staff of The Wall Street Journal that believes that. I certainly don’t.
I saw another transcript of the same show in which ex-NYT right-wing columnist William Safire wholeheartedly agreed. Naturally, I can't find it now, so you'll all have to trust me, as if you can't tell from the rest of that transcript how Safire feels about the issue.

Here's the deal with journalists: They're generally well-meaning people who try exceptionally hard to get things right and do a good job. Mistakes eat away at their souls and their stomach linings, but they make them. They do not operate in conspiratorial lockstep. Believe me -- most journalists already hate their editors and other bosses. They're not going to follow them off ethical cliffs simply because the bosses say so. If they did, no one would be quitting in Santa Barbara this week.

Mr. Edit Publisher knows people assume otherwise, so he thinks he can make hay with the line about viewpoints being called in from "Back East, Down South or another country." (Another country?? The only news outlets that spring to mind that have foreign ownership of any kind are Rupert Murdoch's holdings, and having an Australian at the very top of the corporate food chain
is the very least of Fox News Channel's problems.) And in saying something so deliberately misleading, he proves that his values are absolutely not those of good journalism. Good punditry, maybe, but that's an oxymoron.

2 comments:

Neel Mehta said...

I ran them by the sports editor sitting three feet away, not some guy hidden in an underground bunker in New York.

Glad to hear that Dick Cheney has no influence on your content.

I'm not one to complain about the local paper. The local TV news, however, is universally worthless.

Mrs. MMM said...

Isn't all TV news worthless?