Monday, September 21, 2009

What motivates a newspaper? 

The local paper seemed to go on the offensive yesterday over complaints that their coverage of recent events has been a little meager and one-sided. Managing editor John Bodette argues that the paper focuses on local coverage. True, but the one case of local coverage he does give in the article is of the local tea party and town hall of Michele Bachmann. In that case, as I noted last week, they used one article to cover both events. They were not organized together and had little to do with each other except that Bachmann spoke at both (and, I guess I did too, though I said very little at either one.) The editorial page gave more space yesterday to a screed about the tea party than its reporter provided coverage.

All the other items were national items, which Bodette reports as having seen some coverage inside the paper. It's not as if national items never appear on page one, but if I ran a St. Cloud newspaper I would take the same attitude Bodette does: Local news is what will sell papers.

Then editorial page editor Randy Krebs decides to reveal something about his editing. The crux of his argument:
The teacher asked our class what the purpose of television was and the overwhelming response was �entertainment.� His tart reply: �Wrong! What you see as �entertainment� is merely something to show between the commercials there to get your money.�...

I will grant you that �objective news reporting� is a subjective term. That�s human nature. I also fully acknowledge that the business realities facing newsgathering entities can impact those efforts, especially these days. And by no means am I comparing broadcast to print media. (They are apples and oranges, but that�s another column � or a book.)

But to be blunt, the bulk of the complaints aren�t that sophisticated. They simply don�t seem to grasp that what they are watching or listening to is more about entertainment. In the words of my old teacher, �it�s there to keep you tuned in until the next commercial.�
So when you watch Fox News or MSNBC, they are giving you entertainment, not facts, and it's because of the almighty dollar. But what motivates the newspaper if not profit? This is after all a newspaper of the Gannett chain, one that prefers smaller papers where they dominate the advertising market. As ad revenues dropped the newspaper got smaller, and as it got smaller so did the amount of news provided.

Local sells, Bodette tells us, and TV and radio (and I'd assume blogs like this one) are motivated by something base like "getting eyeballs to commercials" while the newspapers are not. Yet the newspaper operates as a business; it hires and fires workers, including reporters, based on profit. It can and does shade its news (see here for more) but it will respond to incentives just like anyone else. Would the editors agree we should apply the same skepticism to print as we do to broadcast?

Profit is often not the only motive. Particularly when it comes to managers working for a distant ownership, other goals come in to play. One of those may be acceptance within your profession. Providing enough profit keeps the paychecks coming, but when given an opportunity you may choose to do things that keep you invited to the nice parties at the next journalism convention.

Krebs instructs us:
As the person at Times Media whose job hinges largely on people understanding �it�s the Opinion Page,� I simply ask you to be a little a more discerning, and perhaps honest.
Now remember, this is the newspaper that has said in its very same editorial page that "we've had enough" of Bachmann who "consistently invokes extremism."
This board has never been a supporter of Bachmann, but it was willing to treat her tactics and outlandish statements as errors in judgment and/or a need to get noticed. Sadly, we�ve had enough.

Two straight years of her consistently spewing misleading snippets about important issues yet never stepping beyond those statements to find realistic solutions make it clear she is all about extremism and cares nothing about crafting viable public policy.
I'd love to give you the whole column, but it appears to have gone down the memory hole in the Times' parlous web. No money in that, either, dontcha know!

So how about, when you do a report on Bachmann and you bury the tea party story after the jump and append it to the end of the town hall story, "you be a little more discerning, and perhaps honest" yourself.

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