Half Past the Month: Journalism’s Conceit

November 18, 2016

by Craig Ladwig

A young journalism major’s impassioned column in my morning Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, an appeal to use full-court persuasion, on the job and off, to oppose the president elect, got me to thinking about the future of my sorry profession.

A few days earlier, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, had “rededicated” his newspaper to fairness while thanking the readership for its loyalty. What the young columnist gets wrong, and why the Times won’t be able to deliver on that rededication, is too tedious to go into here. Let’s just say it involves a corporate ownership model that leaves adolescent minds in charge and go from there.

What’s historic and dynamic, what in a short time has cost mass media its place in American society, is the conceit of a managerial class, the newsroom pseudo intellectuals, egged on by journalism professors, never having built or sold anything but telling others what to do with what they have built or sold.

Americans understand at least that much about what’s going on inside the news business, and it scares them. For when someone starts telling them how to think, even good-hearted young journalism majors, it ends up with some authority or another refusing to allow them to own, accumulate, trade or associate —the defining freedoms of our particular nation. That, and not the Internet, has driven the profession down.

Don’t be so consitutionally dramatic, says Tim Swarens at the complicit Indianapolis Star. The problem is that the news business is a business; certain journalists have become accountable to the wrong people (advertisers, viewers, subscribers, etc.). They have been distracted from the important work of telling us what to do. Here is Swarens examining his editorial navel:

“A part of journalists’ self-review requires figuring out how to secure the resources needed to consistently produce high-quality journalism in an era when budgets shrink each year. It’s expensive and time-consuming to do the type of reporting that can truly make a difference in a community and across the nation.”

Secure the resources? Make a difference across the nation? Is he applying for a federal grant, this man who operates under legal protections denied other professions? Certainly any ruler would be happy to take back from the private sector the job of informing society, of making it different, but there is a better idea, one that would be of great benefit to a young journalism graduate.

Why not collect enough information to be prescient? That has paid the way of independent journalism for 400 years. It requires applying resources to reporting on what is likely to affect a reader’s everyday life without trampling his values, politics and ideals. Such journalism builds trust, both in a loyal readership and in advertisers who want to associate with an institution earning such loyality.

Dr. Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at Texas University, remembers a rule of thumb from the Old Journalism: “Imagine your story being read at the family breakfast table.” The rule was not prudish, as young reporters were apt to think, but practical. The editor wanted them to gather news for a time-pressed, economically viable sample of consumers of various ages and dispositions that would help prepare them for the day, the week and — if the journalists were exceptionally skilled — the month.

If you want to know how well the New York Times or the Indianapolis Star do that job, review the commentary and story selection leading up to this November’s election — or, for that matter, any election.

A friend, Nancy Nall, formerly the columnist for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, saw it coming a decade ago when her once corporate employer, Knight-Ridder News, closed its doors. Her analysis then for The Indiana Policy Review neatly sums up the argument here:

“If you were making a list (of what is wrong with journalism), where would you start? How about with the loss of public trust? Editors and reporters like to tell themselves that their jobs exist to serve readers, but the readers are, increasingly, rejecting the service.”

That turning out to be the case, it follows that the passion of the young columnist is callow, Sulzberger’s gratitude for loyal subscribers is premature and Swarens’ mea culpa for ignoring his readership is belated.

They can kiss their journalism goodbye.

The author is editor of The Indiana Policy Review and a 50-year veteran of community and metropolitan newspapers.


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