The Outstater: Saving ‘Journalism’

March 31, 2020

A FRIEND PASSES ALONG a heartfelt plea from the editor of my city’s corporate newspaper. The editor is asking us, with information on the Wuhan flu being so critical, to pay for a digital subscription and thereby help “save journalism.”

The friend was inclined to respond favorably. First, though, he wanted to think a bit about what sort of “journalism” he might be saving.

It would be the sort described by Dr. Marvin Olasky in his classic history of American newspapers as “oppression journalism.” This school has prevailed for several decades now and maintains that humanity’s problems arise not from personal corruption but from external influences. The role of journalists, it says, is to put a spotlight on those influences. “The hope is that if man’s environment is changed, man himself changes, and poverty, war and so on, are no more,” Olasky writes.

That, as it has turned out, hasn’t been much help predicting the human experience. The pictures that these journalists paint never seem to hold fast to the canvass. And for those of us who admire the late Robert Bartley, the great Wall Street Journal editor, prediction or prescience should be journalism’s chief goal. It is how editors gain the trust of a readership, and that trust is what attracts advertising revenue and keeps cash register ringing — whether it be print, broadcast or digital.

This means careful attention to factual details so that readers have the best information to anticipate the events of their day, week or month — the weather, sports contests, political outcomes and so forth. The effort is never perfect but readers need to know that is the overarching attempt, rather than to lecture them on this or that.

The corporate ownership model failed to meet this challenge. Specifically, it was never able to duplicate the efficacy of a single, local owner, perhaps irascible, minding the political cliff in the newsroom and enforcing day in and day out a well-defined standard of accuracy and tone.

So what would happen if the pleas of the corporate newspapers are ignored, that readers like my friend decide they can’t afford its particular brand of journalism? Aren’t particularly interested in saving it?

Nothing much. The staff of any newspaper or media outlet includes plenty of talented journalist who understand Olasky’s point. They could step up almost immediately to man a new product under a more workable ownership model. Local investors would be available as well, some of them willing to accept profit margins lower than that sought by the corporate chains.

The current management, architects of a professional disaster of historic proportion, could be sent into well-deserved exile to their Gulf vacation homes to grumble on about the unworthiness of President Trump. — tcl


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