Jewish World Review June 23, 2004/ 4 Tamuz 5764
Newspapers looking for love in wrong places
It's hard to watch a loved one grow sick and die, as print journalists know too well. Newspapers have been on a slide for years and remedy seems remote.
Thus, a recent memo to Tribune Company employees came as little surprise, just another notice in a series of bad years. Two hundred jobs in the news division are being eliminated through early "buyout" retirements or, in the absence of volunteers, layoffs. So it goes in the print world, as circulation and advertising revenues don't measure up.
In 2001, Tribune cut 1,700 jobs. Other newspaper companies face similar straits. Warren Buffett, whose company owns an 18 percent interest in the Washington Post Company, recently predicted that the economic health of newspapers will seriously deteriorate in the next two decades. It is a depressing time for lovers of newspapers and the old world of print journalism. It is also hard not to wonder whether, in seeking explanations and solutions, we're suffering from self-delusion and denial.
Ironically, no industry spends more time on the couch than the newspaper business. We're the most self-analytical tribe around, always asking ourselves, "What do readers want? How can we make ourselves more attractive? "We're like desperate women reading fashion magazines for clues to snagging a man. More cleavage? Better kisses? Hotter lipstick? And so we print special youth-oriented editions, for instance, that lose money and insult the intelligence of would-be readers who happen to be young. All the while, numbers drop and jobs disappear, while the blogosphere explodes and cable news ratings soar.
Is it possible we're looking for love in all the wrong places? Let me be blunt. Newspapers bite. The work isn't much fun anymore, thanks to the soul-snatching corporate culture that has euthanized newsroom personalities. Most papers reflect that numbers-crunching, cubicle-hunkering mentality. We're boring, predictable, staid and out of touch with the folks with quarters. Nobody rushes to the rack anymore to see what the paper's great voices have to say because there aren't many great voices left.
Meanwhile, half the nation's editorial cartoonists Doug Marlette's "designated feelers" have disappeared from editorial pages, leaving holes where hearts used to beat. With television offering headlines and Internet blogs offering inspired commentary why do people want to get their hands dirty reading stale stories that fail to ring the chime of truth?
Declining reader confidence isn't just about high-profile scandals such as the Jayson Blair/New York Times and Jack Kelley/USA Today debacles. Distrust is also tied to the reality "disconnect" between those who produce newspapers and those who read them. Yes, the media tilt left and the Earth is round. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center that has journalists debating themselves reports that the elite media are far more liberal than the public ("Ordinary Americans," as the elites like to call you). While 34 percent of journalists self-identify as liberal, only 20 percent of Ordinary Americans do. Only 7 percent of journalists consider themselves conservative, compared with 33 percent of the public.
Even those figures may be misleading, as a large majority of journalists consider themselves moderate. You be the judge. In 1992, 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Bill Clinton, and 90 percent of journalists believe in a woman's right to abortion.
By contrast, 49 percent of Ordinary Americans voted for Clinton, and more than half think abortion is morally wrong, though six in 10 don't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
To address this values schism, the American Society of Newspaper Editors naturally is putting its energies into racial and gender parity. By the year 2025, the ASNE wants to achieve 100 percent parity by hiring Asian Americans, blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and women proportionate to the numbers in our communities.
Obviously there's nothing wrong with trying to make newsrooms reflect the American community, though quotas by definition suggest a compromise of standards. But the racial parity mandate is symptomatic of what ails newspapers. It's the perfect bureaucratic Band-Aid, a cosmetic fix that looks good but is a superficial corrective. Parity does not equal quality.
But hiring by the numbers makes us feel good and gives us bragging rights to public virtue. We may be dying, but at least we're diverse! We'll all go down together. As even Ordinary Americans know, adjusting the racial makeup of a newsroom doesn't begin to address why newspapers are losing readers.
As with the Cosmo girl who can't find her man, it's not the makeup that's wrong; it's the soul that's gone missing.
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