News Blues Clues

In the eighties I worked at a major daily newspaper. No, I is was not as a writer thing then back ago. I worked in a different department. I did learn a thing or two about journalism, though. Spend a decade or two in an industry and you pick up a few things.

Surprisingly times were already lean for newspapers, even way back then. The population in our county was growing and our circulation numbers were up. But they were not keeping pace with the population growth. In other words, our penetration was decreasing. Our key metric was households and the percentage of households choosing to partake of our product was dropping.

It was generally surmised that this was a result of people’s lifestyles changing. The fast pace of modern life left little time for a cup of coffee and reading something in the morning before rushing out to the door to get to work. It also seemed generational. Younger folks seemed to like their news in smaller chunks from more entertaining, bite-sized chunks, like television and the expanding world of cable.

Eventually circulation numbers peaked and then started to decline. It was no longer just a penetration thing accompanied by actual growth. The bleeding had started. And this was all happening before the internet. Oops.

So what is journalism? These days it has grown so trendy to criticize media all the freakin’ time. I think it’s a pertinent question. It used to be the loudmouth who could afford the printing press. Oh, those were the wacky days. Check out the Library of Congress for some blasts from the past.

Basically journalism is the reporting of shit. The people who tell you about shit are called “reporters.” Thinking deep thoughts like these led me to develop the pyramid depicted above.

At the top of the pyramid we see “Actual Reporting” occupying the space typically shared by “Fats and Oils.” In other words, use sparingly. This is where real reporting of the news takes place. To reach the tip of the pyramid, a journalist actually has to uncover some facts (investigation) and/or talk to a source and obtain something called a “quote.”

You’ll note that journalists don’t typically say, “Three men cut each other up with hedge trimmers.” Instead, they cleverly use attributed quotes to bring you the same message in a slightly different way. “Police say hedge trimmers used in fight that led to arrest of three men.”

I just looked at Google News and the top story illustrates this concept:

Egypt’s highest court on Thursday declared the parliament invalid, and the country’s interim military rulers declared full legislative authority, triggering a new level of chaos and confusion in the country’s leadership.

Note the key reporting phrases. “Egypt’s highest court” and “declared.” Clever.

These days, the line between reporter and jackass has been blurred. It seems any damn fool can climb atop a virtual soapbox and spew his shit for all the world to see. (Source: My blog.) Facebook, Twitter, social media and blogospheres all purport to have “content” which allegedly can be “news” from time to time. Or opinion. Hey, just like a page found in the newspaper.

As traditional media goes the way of the dodo (The Times-Picayune in New Orleans recently announced it was cutting back to publication only three times a week) we as a society are working our way down that pyramid.

News releases are fine for some things, but they typically only provide information that an organization is willing to divulge. Police departments, businesses and other organizations use them to control the message and craft their public image. As such, they can never be a replacement for actual reporting.

I tried my hand at the reporter thing for awhile and I learned how much of local news (television and print) relied on the damn things. It was very eye-opening. And that exposes another truth: Real journalism is hard and expensive and time consuming. Much of what was presented as “news” was simply a rewritten synopsis of media releases. No additional “reporting” type stuff was done.

These days much of what passes for journalism comes in three forms: Quoting other stories, fact checking on Wikipedia, and, of course, consulting the great Oracle known as Google.

Quoting other media is quite common. This often takes the form of “The XYZ Post reported today that Obama refuses to personally lick stamps.” Look carefully to see what, if anything, is actually new in the story being written about the story that was originally published somewhere else.

Wikipedia is a wonderful thing. I love it. But it is not infallible. It shouldn’t be relied on as a substitute for actual reporting but, when used properly, can be helpful in writing a story. Just don’t quote the damn thing unless you are sure. There’s the famous story of the 23-year-old journalism student who “hoaxed” Wikipedia after the death of Maurice Jarre by planting a made up quote. That quote was picked up my major news organizations and repeated in stories, causing embarrassment. Oops.

And the Google thing? You don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, do you?

A couple other interesting generalities about the journalism pyramid:

  • As you move down the pyramid, in general, the level of “copy editing” decreases. Copy editing is another human being who reads stuff and checks it for formatting, grammar, and facts.
  • The rate of pay for producing work typically also decreases as you climb down to the bottom of the pyramid.

The immediacy of Twitter and social media won’t replace real journalism. Talk about sensationalism! When was the last time Twitter ever edited itself, fact checked, and got back to us with a published correction after initially reaching a wrong conclusion?

7 responses

  1. I’m hoping that the paradigm shift will work itself out at some point, and we’ll once again have a Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings.
    I’m also hoping that it will happen in my lifetime.

    And hy! Alan Parsons Project!

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    1. Wow. I just tried and something like that happening is really hard to imagine.

      How about we morph this post into a question? What journalist do you respect the most? Hint: It’s not Android Cooper of ABC’s hit reality TV show The Mole.

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      1. Yeah, that’ll twist your brain, won’t it?
        In my lifetime, I’d have to go back to Jennings or Brokaw, maybe Linda Ellerbee.
        I think Rachel Maddow is good, but she isn’t objective.

        When the Zombie Apocalypse comes, maybe we could get Murrow back on the air!

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  2. Reporting seems to stop after an intial incident. With notable exceptions, we know something happened, but no one stays with it to report what happened next.

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    1. Outstanding. That was going to be one of my points but I failed to spend any words on it and stuff. As one of the great unedited writers out there I have no taskmaster encouraging me towards excellence so I avoid it like the plague. (Excellence, I mean. Perhaps I could have expressed that more well.)

      Editor!!!

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      1. I have toiled in the bowels of a newspaper. It ain’t pretty. You know what comes out of the bowels!

        In J-School, we were taught to attribute everything to a named source. That way we can punt responsibility! I’ve also been an editor and a page designer. Sometimes all at the same time. So I was witness, judge, jury and executioner.

        Omawarisan is so right when he says above about how little follow-up there is to news. I recently read that there’s an 11-day news cycle. After about eleven days, public interest wanes. There’s always something new, bright and shiny (actually usually blood-covered) to sell newspapers.

        Think about the debris now appearing on the west coast of the U.S. from the Japanese tsunami. Many people, when they saw that in the news, if they even saw it, probably thought, “Oh, yeah, there was a bad earthquake in Japan.” They hadn’t thought much about it in months.

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  3. Here’s one of the journalism scenarios that got my dander up.

    A driver older than 90 years (WHAT THE FUCK???) pulled out right in front of a mother aged less than 40 years old on a rural 55mph road. The woman tried to react but still clipped the idiot. Her car spun and she was then crunched by a tractor-trailer from the other direction.

    The old timer had no injuries. Neither did the driver of the semi. The mother of two? She had to be airlifted by helicopter to the hospital.

    I subscribe to Twitter RSS feeds for my town. The feeds lit up for a few days regarding the news. (There’s always a few idiots that tweet the story weeks later like it’s still something new. They are behind the times.) The local media ran stories, too, all consisting of the same basic facts they gleaned from the state police’s media release. All the stories ended with standard boilerplate like “State Police are continuing their investigation.”

    Days later and there was absolutely no follow-up from any of the media. Was the old fuck cited for anything? Has his license been suspended? Was he ordered to see a doctor to confirm the geezer is still fit to drive his own car? What is the condition of the mother? Any other interesting angles, like community reaction, fund raising, people doing what they can to help, etc?

    The follow-up failed to satisfy my curiosity to the point where I actually considered writing the story myself.

    At what point does the risk to the public trump and elderly person’s desire to maintain their own mobility? What doesn’t our society routinely test and certify elderly drivers for the safety of us all? Is it really that necessary for someone in their friggin’ nineties to drive to the grocery store on their own? If it costs two young children their mother then I vote “no.”

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