Gerould Kern didn’t say anything thoughtless or unreasonable at Thursday’s media forum at the Newberry Library, so why pick at nits? I suppose it’s because of the blood on his hands. Someone in the audience asked him for reason to believe that after five rounds of layoffs the Tribune is still a “really good paper.” Kern said the Tribune — which he edits — made “hard choices,” and the staff shrank, but it actually has more people on its metro staff than it did a year ago, and it’s decided “watchdog investigative reporting . . . was going to be part of our brand statement.”
When did “brand statement” insinuate itself into the argot of journalism? When did “watchdog reporting” acquire an invisible trademark? It was, until recently, simply something newspapers did. Now the Tribune has given it an icon — an eye open wide in a black box — and a standing heading, “Tribune Watchdog.” To my mind, the Tribune is telling us it is less important to be a watchdog than to be seen to be a watchdog — but is that fair to Kern?
The front-page Watchdog reports the past couple of days on apparent quackery in the treating of autism are worthy journalism. But as Kern spoke I recalled a front-page story I’d just read in Thursday’s New York Times. It was headlined, “Death Row Foes See New Hurdle to DNA Testing” [retitled online] and it began:
“Opponents of the death penalty looking to exonerate wrongly accused prisoners say their efforts have been hobbled by the dwindling size of America’s newsrooms, and particularly the disappearance of investigative reporting at many regional papers.
“In the past, lawyers opposed to the death penalty often provided the broad outlines of cases to reporters, who then pursued witnesses and unearthed evidence.
“Now, the lawyers complain, they have to do more of the work themselves, and that means it often doesn’t get done. They say many fewer cases are being pursued by journalists, after a spate of exonerations several years ago based on the work of reporters.”
One of those reporters was the Tribune’s Steve Mills, who’s now writing about autism. Another was Maurice Possley, who’s quoted in the Times article. Possley’s no longer at the Tribune. The Tribune has a proud history of digging into the yeasty subjects of prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions. But far fewer Tribune readers know someone on death row than know someone with an autistic child.
I can’t call Kern wrong for deciding it was time for more reader-friendly exposes. The problem with the “brand statement” news model is that it becomes about how a newspaper dresses itself up. And when clothes make the man, a smudge of ketchup can ruin the man. Wednesday’s Tribune carried this admission in its “Corrections & Clarifications” space: “A headline on the front page of some editions of Wednesday’s Chicagoland Extra section misspelled the word ‘opportunity.’ The Tribune regrets the error.” A few pages back in the same newspaper was this headline: “Solider from Downstate killed in Iraq explosion.”
The Tribune is far from being the only publication to lay off copy editors and proofreaders, scaling back the quality-control process and paying a price. But it was Kern front and center on the Newberry panel, and as he spoke about emerging business models I thought about the sociological theory that holds that a single broken window that goes unrepaired can lead to the decline of an entire street. Leaf through a Tribune (or any other newspaper) these days and you spot more and more broken windows.
Some other impressions:
Panelist Carol Marin personally symbolizes the consolidation of media in our straitened age, representing Channel Five, where she’s political editor, Channel 11, where she contributes to Chicago Tonight, and the Sun-Times, where she writes a column. Her finest moment came when she announced she hates the word content though she occasionally uses it. “Content to me is not news,” she declared. “Lots of stuff will qualify as diet — a good diet, a great plan for the weekend. But news is ‘Oh, my god, I had no idea that this was going wrong in my government.”
In other words, reporting news can lead to expensive aggravations such as subpoenas, something Marin had talked about a little earlier in the program as “one of the costs of doing business.” It’s a big cost measured in time and money, but it’s invisible to the public, and if you’re contemptuous of mainstream media it probably doesn’t occur to you that it’s a cost only the MSM has had the money to cover. News is content, but content isn’t necessarily news. It can be whatever you feel like shoveling into a news hole when you don’t want to spend time and money — or can no longer afford to.
Donald Hayner, editor of the Sun-Times, thinks the conversation among journalists is so skewed toward “change all the time” that the fundamentals get lost. “There’s so much thinking outside the box,” he said. “I think we’ve got to have somebody in the box. . . . The fundamental gathering of news still sells, and the bigger that news the bigger it sells.” He’d like to see Chicago’s news organizations join forces and create a common firewall behind which their gathered news will be protected from online scavengers who read but don’t pay. The problem, he said, is that everyone’s too independent to agree to such a thing — and antitrust laws might also be a problem. So Hayner talks about his idea, but he hasn’t pursued it.
Carl Bernstein spoke with great joy about the newspaper game, but he said the number of papers has been shrinking all his life and when papers go under these days it’s evolution, not a tragedy. He called the Web a “great delivery system” for news that’s simply still in search of a business model that will pay for news gathering that’s up to American journalism’s traditional standards. I was impressed by Bernstein. Decades beyond his Watergate glory days, he looks a lot less like Dustin Hoffman than Shoe’s tubby Perfesser Cosmo Fishhawk, his suit jacket precariously held taut by a single button that looked like it could pop at any second, his shirt pink, his socks several colors. In any proper newsroom he’d be the shrewd, avuncular old-timer sure of the lore in his head and bearing not an ounce of envy for the rambunctious kids all around him. Someone in the audience wondered why journalism, TV especially, doesn’t dump the “huge” $250,000 and $300,000 salaries and “hire 8 or 9 people for $50,000 a year who can go out and produce good broadcast-quality content.” Bernstein was fine with that. “Reporting has really always been a young person’s business. Yes, we we have older people in journalism to steady the tiller, and yes, we have older editors. But really what has always made this business crack has been young people getting stories.”