CONTACT: Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (415) 725-1939;
Smarting from their low ratings in public opinion polls and increasing competition from each other, prominent journalists gathered on the Stanford campus June 20 to discuss whether it was still possible to do "significant" journalism.
The insider discussion was part of a three-day reunion of about 150 journalists who, over the past three decades, spent a year in Stanford's Knight Fellowship Program. Panelists compiled a long list of contemporary roadblocks to good journalism but some also expressed hope for the future. New technology and other experiments driven by concerns about an increasingly fragmented market for news may eventually lead to better journalism, they said.
"Traditional news values are under major assault," said Tom Johnson, president of CNN and former president and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. "Tabloid shows are providing profit, and far too many entertainment programs pose as news programs." He also cautioned journalists against ignoring the economic realities of news media companies. "The road in our profession is littered with too many newspaper and other media companies that didn't make it financially," he said. He urged journalists to seek business degrees and become executives in news companies because their values will be more influential in board room discussions, he said.
Robert Danzig, vice president of Hearst Newspapers, sounded a similar theme: "With more permanent [financial] success, we can have more [journalistic] distinction."
Facing more competition for advertising and public stockholders with profit as their primary goal, editors and reporters said there is more pressure on them to flock to stories of lurid sex, celebrity and crime, even though they believe such reporting feeds the public's negative view of the media. Sandra Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, confessed that she gradually let the story of the O.J. Simpson trial gain prominent display on page one of her newspaper two or three days a week, even though she didn't believe it was important that often.
"What we need are more editors with the strength of their convictions to lay out and make the case [for good journalism] as opposed to saluting a bad decision that ultimately hurts the corporation," Rowe said. "Unspoken disagreement" between editors and publishers over how to appeal to their audience, she said, "produces a fuzziness and our inability to demonstrate success [for good journalism] in the marketplace."
What journalists traditionally consider good journalism is apparently less successful than it used to be, however.
John Dotson, publisher of the Akron Beacon-Journal, said that in recent years his paper has been losing subscribers even though it is earning more and spending more on serious journalism. Currently the paper is running a lengthy series of articles on what happened to the rubber industry that was a major employer in Akron. "Either we aren't figuring out what the stories are that we should be reporting or readers are turning away from the kind of journalism that we are producing in Akron," he said. "I think that is a problem for most editors. That's why we are turning to issues that most journalists don't like. . . . This society is changing and people are not looking to newspapers for the same things they looked to newspapers before."
Yet Dotson also cautioned against romanticizing the past. When he started out as a reporter 40 years ago, Dotson said, "Most reporters were hacks. . . Editors were news lords. Their judgments went unquestioned. They threw complainers out of their office and I don't remember ever having to do a correction."
CNN's Johnson suggested the tradition of hacks is alive and well. He criticized reporters for gathering by the dozens in front of TV sets to watch his network's coverage of major news events, such as the Persian Gulf War, instead of doing "original reporting." That prompted a reporter in the audience to suggest CNN block its signal from newsrooms because, he claimed, it gives editors the illusion they know what is going on without leaving their offices.
"A fair amount of journalism [today] is quite broken," contended Jan Schaffer, formerly a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and business editor who is deputy director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. As a source for stories now, she said, she has come to agree with the 56 percent of polled Americans who say journalism is often inaccurate. Stories too often do not acknowledge, she said, that there are "more than two sides to most stories and truth is very often plural." Under competitive pressure, many news organizations have given up traditional rules such as having two sources of attribution and of including responses to allegations in the same news cycle as the allegations.
Schaffer reported on research funded by Pew that suggests that consumers of news have changed also. In an experiment last fall, the Bergen Record in New Jersey devoted one full page weekly to coverage of issues related to a U.S. Senate race.
"The nut graph," Schaffer said, using a journalistic term for the main point of a news story, "is that nobody read it. From a public journalism standpoint, it was a harsh lesson. . . . Thirty-four percent of people got all their information from television. Even after the two candidates spent $17 million on the campaign, more than 40 percent of the voters could not identify either candidate." The percentages are based on focus groups funded by Pew.
Schaffer also reported on experiments by the same paper to get the community more involved in defining news. The paper formed a two-year joint venture with a local high school, where students are to create a teen-focused news site on the web [http://www.teenvoice.com], and it convened a brainstorming session of 500 religious organizations that came up with a list of stories and is doing the reporting on them for a newsletter. It is too soon to tell, she said, how well such experiments will work.
David Weir, vice president for content management at Wired Digital, a San Francisco-based Internet company that operates HotWired and Wired News, said it was also too soon to tell how the Internet will change news. "It's humbling to try to do good journalism on the web," said the former executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and editor of Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. Web readers respond with a couple hundred e-mails a day to one of his weekly columnists, he said. They also hold online discussions critiquing the article and demanding to know the writer's sources. The readers "add value," Weir said, in the form of information the writer did not have. The columnist, he said, now thinks of his published column as a "rough draft."
But Weir said the Internet is also home to a lot of inaccurate information prepared by amateurs who do not know how to check the validity of rumors, and he worries that the young Internet reporters for more professional websites are relying too heavily on e-mail to report stories. "When we all think about the stories we've done and the lessons we've learned, there's nothing like sitting down in person with a person, particularly when you are doing investigative reporting or significant journalism," Weir said.
Journalists are increasingly part of the power structure of media companies, said Cole Campbell, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Editors are involved in devising marketing strategies that were once left to the business and advertising executives. This can be a "silver lining," he said, if journalists can bring their values to the discussion. "The downside is it is moving us out of touch with our communities." As an example of being out of touch, he noted that many news media show African American males in the news only when they are athletes or perpetrators of crime. "Only when people begin to see themselves in the news will we renew trust."
But Geneva Overholser, ombudsman for the Washington Post and former editor of the Des Moines Register, said it was difficult to renew trust when stock market performance and advertising revenue dominate top management's thinking. She urged newspaper reporters to do more reporting on their own business.
"A lot of readers don't know that advertisers pay most of the freight. They don't know that most advertisers no longer want a mass audience. They don't know we need to be responsive for solid economic reasons to advertisers. . . . They don't know that some newspapers are ceasing to press for [new subscribers] in some of the less demographically desirable metropolitan areas."
Some of the journalists participating in the discussion urged each other to stick to their professional ethics codes and teach the young. Steve Geimann, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, for example, decried such recent practices as journalists going along with advertising salespeople on sales calls and magazine editors allowing large corporations to review the content of a given issue before the corporation decides to run an ad in it.
Sheila Stainback, a reporter and analyst for CNBC-TV in New York City, quoted polls suggesting many journalists are disillusioned and expect to leave the business before they retire. "What journalism needs now is love, real love newsmen and women who draw a line in the sand about ethics and refuse to cross it," she said.
Stainback refused, however, to criticize journalists who avoid investigating allegations of wrongdoing by corporations that are major advertisers. Their employers often have not stood behind them, she said, citing, in particular, the case of ABC News issuing a "a statement of clarification very often interpreted as a mea culpa" to tobacco companies who were angered by one of its reports.
Avoiding negative stories about advertisers, Stainback said, is "not so bad if you just think of it as playing politics, which may be a whole new skill for us journalists to develop if we hope to retire as practicing journalists."
By Kathleen O'Toole