Newspapers' Self-Inflicted Blows

At Northwestern University in the mid-1990s,
the journalism professor with the most devoted student following was an
understated teacher who said that substantive writing and reporting
isn't everything, it's the only thing. Alternately despondent and
sanguine, he reminded me of Grady from the book "Wonder Boys" when he
told us that he spent weekends drinking in his closet and that he
corrected papers in green ink because "green is the color of hope."

Professor Kupetz has since left Northwestern, and journalism is
today running dangerously low on his emerald-hued optimism. Judging by
the fatalistic declarations after this month's collapse of newspapers
in Denver and Seattle, the industry is morosely drinking in its closet,
wondering what went wrong.

Most newspaper post-mortems insist that decreased ad revenues
brought on by the Internet and the recession caused journalism's
problems, not self-inflicted wounds. If that was entirely accurate,
then readers might lament newspapers' decline as a loss of must-read
content. Instead, Pew polls find "many Americans wouldn't care a lot if
local papers folded."

In light of that, allow me to use these dwindling column inches to
float an alternate hypothesis: While technological and economic forces
certainly battered newspapers, journalism also delivered a one-two
punch to its own jaw.

First, financially strapped newspapers undermined their comparative
advantage by replacing audience-attracting local exclusives with
cheaper national content. Then, the providers of that national content
diverted resources from tough-to-report investigative journalism that
builds loyal readership and into paparazzi-like birdcage liner that
unconvincingly portrays politicians, CEOs and their minions as

"In place of comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage,
readers of even the most serious newspapers were offered celebrity and
scandal, humor and light provocation," says journalist-turned-director
David Simon, whose HBO series "The Wire" examined this trend.

The most preventable tragedy was the deterioration of quality.
Downsized local publications were all but forced to rely on more
national content, but that content didn't have to become so vapid.

Beltway scribes didn't have to miss the Iraq war lies or the
predictive signs of the Wall Street meltdown. Election correspondents
weren't compelled to devote four times the coverage to the tactical
insignifica of campaigns than to candidates' positions and records, as
the Project for Excellence in Journalism found. Business reporters
didn't need to give corporate spokespeople twice the space in articles
as they did workers and unions, as a Center for American Progress
report documents. National editors weren't obligated to focus on
"elevat(ing) the most banal doings" in the White House to "breaking
news," as the New York Times recently noted.

But that's what happened. Rather than investing in the valuable
steel and concrete of hard reporting, national news outlets began
printing the most worthless kind of commercial paper - rumors,
personality profiles and other such speculative derivatives that
consumers could find elsewhere. News, in short, mimicked finance: Just
as Wall Street made bets on bets with credit default swaps and then
watched investors bolt, print journalism mass produced gossip about
gossip, and now sees its audience flee.

Can we blame readers? If local news is gone and national news aims
to celebrify Washington, can we really fault Americans for paying
attention to chatter about Hollywood hardbodies rather than about
D.C.'s paunchy pocket protectors?

I'd say no. If it's a choice between a scoop on Vin
Diesel's latest movie and a local reprint of the Washington Post's A1
cliche on the "hard-charging approach" and dating strategy of mid-level
Obama aide Jim Messina, most of us will (understandably) tune into the
B-movie star, not the bureaucrat - and neither Google nor AIG have
anything to do with that decision. Until the news industry acknowledges
that truth - until it relearns Professor Kupetz's lessons - no
rationalization, green ink or private benders will save journalism.

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