The Evolution, or Devolution, of News

Vladimir Nabokov may have got it right when he said, "The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense."

Nonsense is the right description of a theory of evolution taking hold in too many corners of the journalism world. This theory maintains that astute editors who are conscious of profit goals of their companies must focus not on in-depth investigative journalism but on user-friendly stories about personal finance, fitness and technology.

The theory was articulated with astonishing baldness by Polk Laffoon IV, corporate spokesman for Knight Ridder. As described by Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post, Laffoon's version of the theory goes like this:

" 'Our definition of what is good journalism here has evolved from the time Gene Roberts was editing The Philadelphia Inquirer' in the 1970s and '80s, he says. Rather than big investigative projects, 'we put a lot of emphasis on local news and useful or service-oriented features and news that readers tell us over and over that they want ... health and nutrition, personal finance, personal technology.' "

There are, to be candid, two reasons I'm reacting badly to this notion. One is that I spent 18 years at that newspaper working with journalists on the very kinds of stories that my friend Polk is now saying we must evolve beyond. The other is that it would be easy - and perilously wrong - to assume that Polk's notions are confined to the executive suite of Knight Ridder. They are pandemic in companies that tell stories in print, online and on the air.

There's nothing wrong with finding out what readers and viewers care about. There is everything wrong with pandering to those interests at the expense of substantive news. Consider the specific journalism Polk Laffoon says an evolved journalist no longer needs to pursue:

· The disclosure in 1974 that federal tax laws were being applied unequally.
· A series in 1976 exposing maltreatment of people confined to the Farview (Pa.) State Hospital for the mentally ill.
· Revelations in 1977 about abuses of power by Philadelphia homicide detectives.
· Reporting from the Middle East in 1978 that stressed the common humanity of Arabs and Jews.
· In-depth coverage in 1979 of the nation's worst nuclear accident, at Three Mile Island.
· Disclosures in 1984 that Philadelphia police dogs had attacked more than 350 individuals.
· Photojournalism in 1984 depicting victims of war in Angola and El Salvador.
· Reporting in 1985 that documented so many deficiencies in IRS handling of tax returns that the agency publicly apologized to taxpayers.
· Photojournalism in 1985 about homeless people in Philadelphia.
· Reporting which established in 1986 the innocence of a Pennsylvania man wrongly convicted of murder.
· Detailed documentation in 1986 of problems in the administration of city courts in Philadelphia.
· An illuminating 1986 Sunday magazine article about the importance of aircraft carriers.
· Disclosures in 1987 of the scope of the secret Pentagon "black budget."
· Revelations in 1988 about provisions inserted in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 to give many individuals and businesses covert tax breaks.
· Reporting in 1988 about how blacks were compelled to live in apartheid South Africa.
· Disclosures in 1989 that citizens who thought they were donating blood to patients were actually giving it to the Red Cross and other agencies and companies to sell at a profit.

As it happened, those "big investigative projects" were deemed by the people who give out Pulitzer Prizes to be precisely the kind of journalism that news companies should undertake. They were not, of course, the only enterprise journalism projects done under Gene Roberts -- or his Inquirer successors, Maxwell King and Robert Rosenthal.

Those editors had nothing against giving readers features sections and health information and personal finance guidance or, for that matter, comic strips. Gene Roberts was the leading expert on TV guides in newspapers. News is often harsh. Leavening it is fine. Indeed, an Inquirer editorial cartoonist also was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, for calling pungent attention in 1975 to ironies in a nation about to celebrate its bicentennial.

Editors like those at my old newspaper understand - and there was a time corporate media officers did also -- that journalism's sacred trust with its audience is not to tell people the latest diet craze. It is not to advise parents what's on next Wednesday's school lunch menu. It is not to provide film buffs with the Internet address of the nearest multiplex. It is not to make selection of 401(k) choices simpler. It is not to provide price comparisons on BlackBerry pagers. It is not even to alert consumers to the chance to buy a new SUV at 0.9% interest or to get a sack of potatoes with a discount coupon at the supermarket. Those things are ancillary.

News is the part people don't ask for and should know. News is what can help people govern their nation, their city, their neighborhood, their school. By definition, news does not soothe. News breaks. Those big investigative projects help people understand how and why it broke and sometimes how to put it back together.

A quarter-century ago, Nelson Poynter worried that his St. Petersburg Times news company would not be able to do independent and meaningful journalism if the company got swallowed up by a media chain. He felt so strongly about it that he gave his company to a school for journalists. The Poynter Institute now is preparing to inscribe in marble in its new central courtyard one of Nelson Poynter's most memorable statements:

"I'd rather be a newspaper editor than the richest man in the world."

Journalism is at risk today in part because too many executives of too many media companies see profit in turning Nelson Poynter's aphorism upside down. If that's evolution, I'll keep my dinosaur costume, thanks.

To the Editor:

I agree with the points Jim Naughton makes - which makes me happy,
because I have always liked and admired Jim Naughton. What I don't agree
with is the way Howard Kurtz (and I told him so the day the article was
printed) quoted me. I did not say "Rather than big investigative projects .
. ." newspapers should be doing service journalism and local news. I said
"along with . . ." Obviously, it is a critical distinction.

Public service projects, serious investigations and comprehensive
breaking news stories (like The Miami Herald's Pulitzer Prize winning
coverage of Elian Gonzalez) are at the heart of the "journalism's sacred
trust with its audience," - Jim's words. We believe that strong local
coverage and service journalism are also important in shaping the kind of
content that readers consistently tell us they want. As a consequence, we
think it helpful to point out that "quality journalism" comprises each of
these elements. And each of them requires resources to be done well.

Polk Laffoon IV
Vice president/corporate relations
Knight Ridder
San Jose, Ca.

  • James Naughton

    Made a career out of covering politicians when people cared to read about that. Moved on to editing, managing and cavorting in newsrooms, often while dressed in costume.


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