Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

A study in contradictions

Posted by boakley59 on March 23, 2009

Rest in peace, Rocky Mountain News. Fare well on your Web-only way, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All hail, absent friends, though we hardly knew ye.

The tough times and declining readership of the newspaper industry grow ever worse. Many folks cling to the hope that Joe Average will always want something to hold in his hands to read in the bathroom, but I think the handwriting (and the hypertext) is on the wall. The day is coming when your wall or your phone or a microphone or earpiece will feed you the news even as you put the plumbing to use.

But it’s not the delivery mechanism that is killing newspapers, though the richer search capabilities of the Internet do significantly undermine classified advertising, which is a critical component of the newspaper business model.

No, what’s killing newspapers is more akin to problems my good friend Ben Pollock points out in “Depressing news” on his blog, Brick. And Suzy has linked to a Washington Post column, a fantasy about the last two journalists in America, that sheds further light on the subject.

As I see it, the gist of Ben’s post is that journalism will again thrive when people realize they need it and that the price (whatever price?) they are asked to pay for it is really chump change. He hopes people will eventually come to realize that the cry “Information wants to be free!” (as in beer, not slaves) is an impossible way to conduct business or even public service. Right now, people are generally not convinced that news of their locale is worth the price of a couple of hamburgers or cups of coffee a week. But let 9/11 or Katrina happen, Ben argues, and the value of newspapers as a kind of community glue will again become apparent. It’s not the event alone but how journalists encapsulate it that is the key.

That brings us to the column in the Post, a tale of the last two American journalists flipping a coin to decide who will write the last story in the last newsroom and who will walk away. The thing is, the coin flip gives the winner the right to choose who will do what. The chilling thing to me is that the winner decides to leave.

I can think of three equally disconcerting reasons for such a choice: Professional insecurity (honest self-evaluation?), the belief that the other writer would tell the final story better; professional weariness,  the belief that it didn’t matter who told the story and after so long it would be better just to be free as soon as possible; a yen for 15 minutes of fame, the belief that it is better to be remembered than rememberer. Whatever the reason, in this tale the last journalist with the power to choose would prefer to walk away from journalism.

That is not all the chill this column holds, though, for in a “Twilight Zone,” house of mirrors finish, the last journalist starts typing the exact opening of the column, a purely banal recounting of two journalists walking into the last newsroom in America to decide who will write …

Here, to my mind, is the heart of the problem.

Journalism is about reality, and for all the fires and wars, failures and triumphs, reality is ultimately familiar: Often tiring, sometimes terribly tangled and loaded with meaning, but still just people doing what people do. And as Ben notes, people have a strange idea about paying for the ordinary: A loaf of bread keeps me going, a gallon of gasoline keeps my car going, but this collection of stories … not for $1! And as the Post column suggests, journalists don’t want to do the ordinary, but what choice do they really have?

See, newspapering is a messy business, as messy as they come. Readers usually take “messy business” in a different way than I mean it. Readers know that people are misquoted and their names are misspelled and reporters intrude on private moments. Given these truths, journalism is a messy business, journalists keep hearing, because we are not quite like everybody else: not so intelligent, so vigilant or even so decent.

That’s not the mess I mean. Journalism is messy because it’s fast and furious, and journalists are meant to be outsiders. We conduct an uncertain search for truth with flimsy tools, false trails, deceitful guides and short time frames. We’re supposed to expose the corrupt without becoming an arm of the government. And when government is unbecoming, we’re supposed to fight it without arms.

When we take on the government, we have the express protection of the Constitution; when we take on the private sector, the only sure protection we have is demonstrable truth or at least a demonstrable effort to find it. We try to be neutral to get information from partisans, but paradoxically every partisan tends to suspect that we are more sympathetic to the opposition: If you’re not the enemy of my enemy, you’re not my friend.

People lie, cheat and steal and we’re supposed to catch them fair and square, even in the towers of power. If the liars are in the towers of power, we may be forced to deal covertly, entirely contrary to our very reason for being.

Messy business. A study in contradictions; the study of contradictions. I have said that our business is ordinary life, but a fundamental definition of news is that it is what’s extraordinary: “Dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is. We tell the stories of Everyman, and of Superman, while trying not to  appear to be too much like either. We try to expose partisan fallacies while trying not to be merely partisan.

This is where our enterprise has imploded. We pursue the truth, desperate to do so without fear or favor. The right wing paints journalists as left-leaning subversives; the left wing sees journalists as corporate shills. We tend to keep running right down the center path. But ordinary life does not follow the center path, and journalism will never again thrive until journalists better follow the twists and turns of truth. Truth is more important and more complicated than fairness, and we’ve gone too far toward the latter for too long.

When a child cries about monsters under the bed, we offer hugs and comfort and we may even look under the bed, but only to show there is no monster. We do not close off the room and stay away; we do not tell other children that this child really saw a monster. Too much journalism nowadays gives a megaphone to the fearful and the delusional.

The glory of the free press once shone as essayists took on tyranny, as thoughtful reporters exposed the evil that humans do and the lies they tell. Afraid of taking sides, journalists today are more likely merely to play back the lies than to expose them. We become moderators of pointless patter passing as debate rather than guardians — or judges — of truth.

Newspapers will be important again when they really take sides. They will thrive again when they research the ridiculous and bury it under truth.

When a politician says a new stadium will be a boon to a city and the tax to build it will be a bargain, the track record of similar deals in other cities should be presented, as should the track record of similar deals by that politician.

When horoscopes get more newspaper space than Nobel-worthy research, who can take reporting seriously? When newspapers dutifully go to scheduled events and repeat without challenge what they know is mere spin, why should anyone bother to read?

Do the hard work, expose the liars. Stop printing the shallow stuff to see who can say the least first. Examine, dig, and yes, take sides. By all means, choose a side. Choose truth. You may be wrong sometimes, but show your work. Explain how you arrived at the side you chose. Reality is open to interpretation; a lot does depend on whose ox is being gored. It is indeed dangerous and difficult to choose, but it is pointless not to.

If a tape recorder or video camera can do your job, you are a machine, not a journalist. Machines may be intricate and fascinating, and we may even name some of them or attribute a certain character to them, but we know they are lifeless and replaceable. In the end, they neither engage our minds nor touch our hearts.

Journalists-as-recorders are the machines that are killing newspapers.

I believe that newspapers are dying of blandness, of “fairness” gone too far, of unwillingness to simply call liars liars. My oversimplified prescription is to stop being that way, but this is like radiation therapy for a cancer patient. The cure is as likely to kill as the disease.

Will readers accept and respect the researched and detailed conclusions of journalists if those conclusions contradict their preferences, or will partisanship grow ever louder and more entrenched? I’m inclined to think the latter, and that it will be journalists, not just newspapers, doing the dying. And I don’t mean that it would be career suicide, I mean that it will be a suicidal career.

We as a society can’t handle the truth. Well, that’s not quite right: We can’t face the truth, but we can handle it, manipulate it, twist it, just fine.

The truth that newspapers must face: As long as they merely handle the truth, no one will give a flip whether anyone is left to turn out the lights.


3 Responses to “A study in contradictions”

  1. Know what I wish? I wish newspaperpeople in the other departments would write where everyone can see. We journalists can type until we’re blue in the fingers, and we do, but we have little to do with circulation and advertising, cannot speak with authority about them, and those are what are failing.

    The professionals who live subscription and rack sales, and classified and display ads, could illuminate the picture.

    We scribes do little more than guess, with the reliability we’ve shown in analyzing political campaigns — not to mention the rest of the economy.

    Maybe I’m just speaking for myself.

    Bruce sez: Well, we have USA Today as an answer to guidance from those professionals, and the industry has moved in that general direction for three decades. Still, we scribes don’t quite want to buy that approach entirely, because we want desperately for news to stand on its own value and for us not to be salesmen, advertising partners or ratings-chasers. And scribe-types generally hold our noses at the very thought of customer service and therefore we stink at it.

    I can tell you, from my days watching Web traffic, that what draws eyeballs is likely at first blush to be disappointing to the typical scribe. It takes some work to tease meaningful guidance out of those passing fancies.

    There is a post in these ideas that I shall try to undertake for another day.

  2. Bruce, you make me want to read a newspaper again…

    Bruce sez: I must sheepishly admit that I wish I had the same effect on myself. Your comment gave me one of those “Duh!” moments, as I realized we, who always worked at newspapers and read them as part of our work, so never needed a subscription, have not taken a subscription even though we are both now out of the business and no longer have such access. Perhaps a look at our budget and emotional baggage is in order, and perhaps there’s another post in that whole exercise.

    Thanks for the simple spark you’ve provided.

  3. […] A study in contradictions […]

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