William Katz: Death in the City Room

Our occasional contributor William Katz is the proprietor of Urgent Agenda. Bill writes regarding the current challenges of the newspaper business:

“Death in the City Room” is a headline from the early sixties. It appeared above a story about the decline of American newspapers. They were failing. They were going out of business. The age of print was coming to an end. For someone like me, who’d just plunked down a deposit for the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, it was not a story I cared to read.

The summer before I entered Columbia I worked at a summer camp, supervising children whose skill at whining far exceeded any other abilities. I still recall the sneering looks of their parents when they asked about my plans. “You’re going into journalism? Don’t you know what’s happening?” On the prestige ladder, I was below the bottom rung. Not only was I studying to be an ink-stained wretch, I would be an ink-stained wretch in a business that could no longer afford the ink.

Sound familiar? It should. We are now going through another “sky is falling” moment in American newspapering. There are indeed serious casualties, as there were in the sixties, when we lost the New York Herald-Tribune. The Rocky Mountain News has gone under. The Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and the Los Angeles Times are shaky, their futures in serious doubt. The list will grow.

There has, however, always been death in the city room. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, the old New York Sun told a little girl, but no, Virginia, even Santa couldn’t help the Sun, which finally gave up in 1950, after 117 years. The award given by Columbia may be called the Pulitzer Prize, but Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World is no longer around to report who won. The first newspaper to offer me a job was the Chicago Daily News. It died, undoubtedly because I didn’t take the offer.

So, the death of newspapers isn’t that unusual. Generally, newspapers die for the standard economic reasons: There may be too many papers for a city to support; their readership moves to the suburbs; the demographics in an area begin to change; a recession cuts advertising revenue, which never returns; or a long strike causes readers to drift away permanently, as happened in New York in 1963. Some observers claim that competition from other media, like television or the internet, is a major factor in the demise of newspapers, but I’m not entirely sold on that. Much of the newspaper business thrived, after all, during the golden age of radio. I’ve always had a hunch that other media may actually stimulate an appetite for what newspapers print.

There is, however, one dramatic difference between the newspaper failures of today, and those of the past: Today, for the first time, the fundamental credibility of the nation’s leading newspapers is being questioned. When the old Sun went out of business in 1950, and when the Herald-Tribune folded years later, no one said, “We didn’t trust them anymore.” Today, that is being said. And it is not being said only on the fringes. There is a widespread feeling, especially among conservatives, that we no longer need newspapers because they’re no longer fulfilling their function – giving us the news in a professional, unbiased manner, and separating that news from opinion. When that’s said about a sub-standard, lurid tabloid, we’re not surprised. When it’s said about The New York Times, and it is, we take notice.

A newspaper’s most precious possession is its credibility. When that is lost, all is lost. Newspapers have been losing their credibility for decades, and, remarkably, many journalists don’t seem to care. I suspect that this reflects the changing personnel practices of journalism itself. The last fifty years have seen an influx into newspapering of young college graduates, a number from so-called “elite” institutions. Many of these writers did not go into journalism simply to report the news. They came in to “make a difference,” or to influence public opinion. They saw the world, not as something to be observed and heard, but as a series of intellectual challenges. There was a “truth” higher than the events they saw before them, and, they came to believe, they had special insight into that truth.

They told us that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. They announced that urban crime was merely a “socio-economic phenomenon.” They informed us that Ronald Reagan was a warmed-over movie actor fed lines by his handlers. Recalling Vietnam, they announced that the Iraq war, too, was unwinnable. And, more recently, they assured us that only one of two presidential candidates was worthy of the office, even though the other had a long and respected career in public service. And they were wrong on all these things, and their readers came to realize it. And their readers came to see that these “higher truths” were being presented on the first page, in the form of news stories.

Our most prestigious newspapers developed an aloofness from the public, and an aloofness from hard facts. When you conclude that you have the answers to every question, the only facts you need are the ones between your ears.

Phil Bronstein, editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle, said of the current decline of newspapers, “Most of the wounds are self-inflicted.” He explained that “the public was seen as kind of messy and icky and not something you needed to get involved with.” Precisely. Our newspapers, which are supposed to have a feel for their communities, often seem as if they’re printed a thousand miles away. Many reporters apparently believe that listening to readers, “those people out there,” is beneath them.

A number of newspapers also embraced what has come to be known as political correctness. This is an elegant term for what was once called “the party line” – a way of looking at things in which facts are manipulated, or left out entirely, to present the image that the journalist wants you to believe.

Just days ago, police in Washington, D.C. announced that they had solved the 2001 murder of intern Chandra Levy. Yet, our most “respected” papers refused to tell their readers that the alleged killer is an illegal immigrant. Here is a man charged with a heinous crime. Any past illegality is clearly relevant to the story, yet it was excluded, and the public kept ignorant of the facts, in a bow to political correctness. Is it any wonder that many readers have lost confidence in the press?

Can credibility be restored? Yes, but it may take generational change. Restoring credibility means a new set of editors at the top, but also means new groups of reporters willing to play by the rules of traditional journalism, the rules that made great newspapers great in the first place.

At one time it was clear that the American press was the best in the world, specifically because it refused to yield to the ideological contortions of European-style journalism. In recent decades that distinction has faded, and the verdict of readers is now being rendered.

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