This reflection was inspired by “A Newspaper, and a Legacy, Reordered” in The New York Times.
The New York Times recently profiled the Washington Post, from its journalistic successes to its bumpy transition to digital.
The profile is overly nostalgic, in my opinion, glorifying the historic news organization even during criticism of its present. Yet its focus on the Post’s struggle with lowering it’s journalistic standards rang true for me.
The Washington Post will always be the newspaper of Woodward and Bernstein. It showed that journalism could expose corruption and injustice and that newspaper organizations had the ethics to stand by those stories, even when the government attempted censorship. Journalists for decades have “ooed and ahed” at the drama of the Pentagon Papers.
Newspapers are the best equipped news organizations to take on those stories, even today. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Bell expose is a prime example. Newspapers have the resources, both in editorial staff depth and the legal umph to fight for their work.
The importance of the press as a check on government in undeniable. As Boston Globe editor Marty Baron said in a speech earlier this week:
“In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear – fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight…
We cannot allow a regime of intellectual, ideological, or political manipulation to hold sway today, or ever again, in our newsrooms.
If we do not ask the hard questions, who will? And if won’t tell the plain truth, what good are we?
The First Amendment offers the promise that the freedoms granted will be acted upon. It is up to us fulfill that promise.”
But, as The New York Times profile points out, in the digital age, that muckraking, in-depth coverage is fading out of focus. In the race for pageviews and social media prominence, eye-catching, bold stories are taking precedence. Everyone loves a good Top Ten list.
Rob Curley, of the Las Vegas Sun, described the modern balance of news as a nutritional plate of food. Sure, people want the steak, they want the mashed potatoes, and if you hook them on those, you can throw a little broccoli on the plate for their well-being. The fluff, the celebrity gossip, the content-not-reportage is the meat and potatoes. The broccoli is the hard-hitting journalism.
We need to preserve the spirit (the dead trees I could do without) of newspaper journalism in order to hold government accountable, seek out injustice and achieve the ideals of the profession. But newspapers also need to adjust to the changing appetite of the consumer. The Post itself has added some meat and potatoes. It now features an entertainment gossip blog.
The New York Times ended its profile with an anecdote about reporter Dan Balz turning down a position at Reuters because, “The Post was and is a great newspaper. Is it a different place today than it was? Sure. But in the end it’s still a great place to do great journalism.”
Great journalism meets great change.
The next decade will tell if newspaper organizations have the flexibility to hold on.
I, for one, hope they do. However idealistic, I didn’t become a journalist to produce “content.” I became one to “do great journalism.”
Photo courtesy of Wikicommons