Narcissistic Journalism

January 17, 2012

We have been looking for something on the front page of our morning newspaper. It is a headline, a story, that is journalism’s equivalent of the archaeology’s “Cambrian explosion” — a point of view that accounts for all points of view.

We have dug deep but have come up empty even though our search has expanded to the newspaper’s web pages.

It has become a game played with increasing seriousness over our morning cup of tea. The rules are strict but much is at stake. A functioning Fourth Estate, be it press or electronic, is critical to a constitutional republic. The story we seek must meet one of these criterion:

Most readers live their daily lives under those general rules. And if you are a psychiatrist you already have guessed that their inverse loosely tracks the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder.

Let us grant right here that we are all narcissistic at one point in our lives. It is the working definition of adolescence and immaturity. Most of us, though, to twist a line from Bobby Knight, grow up and learn how to interact with the world in more effective ways.*

Modern journalists, cocooned in corporate newsroom cultures, may not.

Perhaps they never did. If my career is indicative, newspapers are ruled by thirty-somethings working the news and copy desks during the day and collecting rare wine and Gertrude Stein quotes at night. These are the media “effete” identified as far back as the first Nixon term. Nothing new there.

What has changed is the economics of ownership. Gone is the publisher-owner with his fogeyish views, generations of hometown connections and overriding interest in the long-term survival of his or her particular medium as a community institution — the adult supervision, I like to say.

Walter Pincus, a veteran reporter for the Washington Post, touched on this in “Newspaper Narcissism,” an article for the Columbia Journalism Review:

“My profession is in distress because for more than a decade it has been chasing the false idols of fame and fortune. While engaged in those pursuits, it forgot its readers and the need to produce a commercial product that appealed to its mass audience, which in turn drew advertisers and thus paid for it all. While most corporate owners were seeking increased earnings, higher stock prices, and bigger salaries, editors and reporters focused more on winning prizes or making television appearances.”

And that in a paragraph is why market penetration has declined since the 1960s. The Internet had little to do with it.

Someone will figure that out sooner or later, either on line or off press. But until then, we renew our subscription with a sigh.

— Craig Ladwig

* “We all learn to write in the second grade; most of us go on to other things.”


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