Saturday, March 03, 2007

Conventional wisdom, interrupted

Tim Rutten's column in the L.A. Times makes some cogent points (as usual) in dissecting the recent Frontline documentary News War. The most damning come when he asks why the third episode didn't quote either the current publisher or editor of the Times, despite devoting extensive time to the paper's woes and quoting former employees, analysts and critics at length.

Jeff Jarvis, meanwhile, weighs in with a substantially different set of criticisms about the program in a recent post at BuzzMachine.

Each makes points worth considering, and together they address an issue I've been thinking about a great deal lately: much of the reporting being done these days about newspaper woes, media transformations and emerging new paradigms for news is superficial, shallow and formulaic.

There's enough sin to spread around, and some of the sinners are pretty obvious: bloggers who reflexively attach conspiracy theories to anything in the mainstream press they disagree with, or newspaper journalists who dismiss the role of bloggers and lump them all into the same, pajama-clad camp.

More damaging, I think, are reports on the business pages of major newspapers, opinion columns in weekly business mags and commentaries on network television that use every new factoid or development as an opportunity to repeat a set of stale, cursory bullet points that are rapidly becoming conventional wisdom. Some paint the news business as all but dead, soon to be replaced by a kaleidoscope of YouTubes and myspaces. Others suggest that everything would be fine if only Dean Baquet had more reporters.

Rarely does one mention that newspapers – alone among major media – are growing total audience. Nobody seems to notice that far more people read the Sunday newspaper (yes, on newsprint) than watched the Super Bowl. They neglect to mention that newspapers are handling online video more effectively than television websites (here, here, and here, for starters). They seem blind to the fact that newspapers own the country's biggest online employment site (CareerBuilder) or that companies like McClatchy, which made almost 100% of its revenue from newspapers 10 years ago now gets almost a third elsewhere. And 2006 was a disasterous year, right? (Actually, our annual ad revenues were up, not down.)

I'm not trying to camouflage the very real, very insistent issues we're facing. Yes, the ground is shifting. We know the way people get their journalism tomorrow will be dramatically different that yesterday – or even today.

But the truth is, we're making the changes that will help us meet those challenges and preserve the mission: to keep independent, fearless public service journalism at the center of whatever new landscape emerges. Let's make sure that our newsrooms, at least, understand that.

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