News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century
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LIBRARY OF CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT
"When screaming headlines turn out to be based on stories that don't support them, the tale of the boy who cried wolf gets new life. When the newspaper is filled with stupid features about celebrities at the expense of hard news, the reader feels patronized. In the process, the critical relationship of reader to newspaper is slowly undermined."
--from NEWS IS A VERB
NEWS IS A VERB
Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century
"With the usual honorable exceptions, newspapers are getting dumber. They are increasingly filled with sensation, rumor, press-agent flackery, and bloated trivialities at the expense of significant facts. The Lewinsky affair was just a magnified version of what has been going on for some time. Newspapers emphasize drama and conflict at the expense of analysis. They cover celebrities as if reporters were a bunch of waifs with their noses pressed enviously to the windows of the rich and famous. They are parochial, square, enslaved to the conventional pieties. The worst are becoming brainless printed junk food. All across the country, in large cities and small, even the better newspapers are predictable and boring. I once heard a movie director say of a certain screenwriter: 'He aspired to mediocrity, and he succeeded.' Many newspapers are succeeding in the same way."
day. He watched the way citizens read his newspaper. If enough of them skimmed a feature, he took serious notice. If too many of them flipped past a comic strip, he called in the cartoonist for a critique or canceled the strip. The people of the city were his focus group. When an editor comes to the city from the suburbs each morning by car or train, works many wearying hours, then repeats the same boring journey home, that editor is losing touch with the audience. He knows about the city from
paper lived. In 1997, I became editor in chief of the New York Daily News. I tried very hard to put everything I knew about New York and the craft of tabloid journalism into that newspaper. The broad goals were very simple. We would insist on quality reporting, writing, and photography; we would respect the intelligence of our readers; we would make a serious, sustained effort to attract more women and more immigrants to the newspaper. The publisher had other ideas. After eight months, I was
cops, watch these shows. They also look at television news. They read the newspapers. They see what editors believe is important. If a legal process can be transformed into a drama with a basic conflict, white hats up against black hats, they will make it into the newspapers. If they can assemble enough facts, no matter how circumstantial or spurious, to indict a big name, they will be famous. There will be a chance of cashing in the greatest of all American lotto tickets, the book deal (in the
men and women, who have never been reporters, depend upon polling and focus groups to shape the news package. They are responsible for the endless meetings, with their charts and abstractions, that consume so much time that was once used by editors to inspire and instruct the young and push the seasoned veterans to better stories. They slice and pare and trim in the name of the holy bottom line, extol the virtues of “reader-driven” journalism, and in the process witlessly reduce the possibilities
continuing commitment to excellence—the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal—are also healthy as businesses. The readers believe the news stories. They don’t have to agree with everything in the newspaper or be completely happy with its coverage; they might not read every word of every story, since nobody ever does, not even editors. But they feel respected by the writers, columnists, and editors. They sense that the newspaper has made a genuine