Thursday, June 26, 2008


The Washington Post ran a story today saying that the Baltimore Sun will cut another 100 jobs. Cuts on top of cuts. I was reminded of an op-ed piece that appeared in the Post recently about the Los Angeles Times: that newspaper too has been ordered to enact another series of draconian staff cuts. This is after one editor left a few years ago protesting the last round of crippling cuts.

Interestingly, according to the op/ed piece, the L.A. Times is scrutinizing reporters on the basis of their productivity. Those who have churned out the most stories will (probably) survive.

As a person who worked for seven years as a newsroom reporter (as distinguished from a freelancer) I can say for a fact that journalism suffers when the whole focus is on churning out as many stories as possible as if they were assembly-line widgets. In fact, not surprisingly, that's what they become: boring and predictable. Ultimately, they become phony stories. Not surprisingly, people stop reading the newspaper.

It should go without saying that the only way, usually, to get the real story, the more difficult and nuanced and harder-to-write story beneath the superficial story that's so simple to churn out, is to allow journalists to dig, ask questions, visit places, take some time to think. But it seems as if, even at the major papers, that time is being yanked away.

As many people have pointed out, weak newspapers are bad for democracy. Investigative reporting is the hardest and most time-consuming for journalists to do, but without it, many abuses by business and government will go on and get worse. Communities are better when newspapers can uncover the unsavory, but now can't expect to have papers with the resources to search out the problems. It will be much easier now for people with power to hoodwink harried reporters.

As we know, newspapers revenues are falling because people turn to the Internet instead of the papers. But newspapers themselves contribute to the problem by adding little value beyond what people can get scanning the Internet.

What is the answer? Obviously, government support of papers would create a conflict of interest. And apparently most of the big papers are going to radically compromise their quality. I imagine the answer will be in the Internet and in the smaller, more independent papers that won't be concerned with high profits.

I hope that in the process of making this transition, journalistic values are not too terribly compromised. One of the things I liked most about journalism were the strict rules that were meant to keep the profession honest and everyone on the same page.

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