I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Objectivity is dead, maaan” club since 2002*, when Jonathan Chait’s TNR essay about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and “liberal bias” blew my young mind. Since then, I’ve read many more arguments for why objectivity is outdated, including a spate of 2009 posts. (Obligatory caveat: Good intentions and common sense underpin the objectivity enterprise. The problem is rigid adherence to a specific, previously unquestioned strain of objectivity.)
But I’ve never read a rethink-objectivity argument quite like Steve Buttry’s recent post on the subject. The language he uses is unexpected — and gets at the heart of why objectivity-at-all-costs is ultimately misguided.
I’ve been mulling over Doug Fisher’s intriguing and, at first glance, entirely sensible suggestion to disentangle newspapers from their printing presses. I wonder if this could be the first part of a radical two-step that might help papers prepare for or transition to the online future in a way they haven’t been able to do yet. Fisher writes:
Many smaller newspapers have had their printing done by contract for years. Headlines have come recently, however, as big-city newspapers (think San Francisco, Boston and now New York) explore outsourcing or consolidating printing, even in the absence of a joint operating agreement. Chains such as McClatchy and Media News are also consolidating printing, even if it means earlier deadlines and longer truck routes.
They should go one step further: Move their printing operations into a separate subsidiary with no ties to the newsroom. Newsrooms would pay to print the paper and be free to take their business to a less expensive or more responsive competitor.
This would get the albatross of “big iron’s” debt and depreciation off newsrooms’ backs. It would position those printing operations better for sale. And it would make the pressroom and the newsroom more efficient in accounting for costs and generating new business.
I would go even a step beyond that.
If, as David Sullivan wrote a couple months ago, “newspapers are essentially a logistics business that happens to employ journalists”; and if, as Fisher writes, “Newsrooms need an honest accounting of the costs and revenues associated with producing, distributing and selling the news,” selling off the press is only half a solution. Here’s a possible other half:
Newspapers should get out of the delivery business and send papers through the mail.
Back in February, Jack Shafer wrote a column for Slate excoriating the new $450 million Newseum building next to the National Mall. He finished his anti-ode to the “monument to journalistic vanity” by gently (compared to the rest of the piece) pointing out that there are plenty of better uses for $450 million, given the troubles facing newspapers:
I want the Freedom Forum to sell off their monument valley installation and use the proceeds to actually support journalism. Like endowing a newspaper, for instance.
Just one newspaper? Those were the days. Nowadays — a mere five months later, that is — $450 million could get you 3 or 4 newspaper chains.
Anyone who (like me) has ever made fun of lame comic strips and the newspapers that run them should read this David Sullivan post about audiences’ capacity and desire for cultural change. It’s the most persuasive case I’ve read for why newspapers stick with what I would consider outdated comics, features, and language:
A columnist or feature can occasionally be hip; but a newspaper can’t be hip. It can’t be the counterculture. It is the culture. It has been part of how new ideas are absorbed into the mainstream. …
But it can be hard to find one’s place in the culture, which grows more complicated by the day; the Internet, with its social networking and postings and chat, provides a new counterculture, or multiple ones, ones that make the mainstream look even lamer than “The Family Circus” did to me in the 1970s. The argument about the future of news is partly about whether the mainstream ends with the baby boomers, like the parents left behind in “Childhood’s End” as the children join the ubermind.
The problem is that newspapers have tended to do a poor job of figuring out how to satisfy both the Family Circus and the more modern audiences. Plus the younger mainstream audience is still hipper and savvier than the Baby Boomer Family Circus audience. But Sullivan’s point is well taken.
The Internet is such a ubiquitous and necessary (for us addicts, at least) part of life in the late 2000-aughts that it’s strange and time-warpy to think of how recent that ubiquity really is. Vanity Fair has compiled a fun oral history of the Net that serves as one of those occasional reminders of the absurd pace of change over the past 15 years. (The oral history covers the Internet’s 50-year history, but the best parts are about the World Wide Web era.)
I first became aware of the post-CompuServe Internet when my brother was in college, circa 1992. I was so excited that he somehow had access to all the important information I couldn’t find anywhere else: namely, the special moves for Street Fighter II. I think Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam secrets were also big on my list of Net-procured info, but Street Fighter was the main treasure.
I remember my brother mentioning Archie and Veronica — two early search engines — and I had no idea what he was talking about, though I must have used one or both to find the video game tricks. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the first time I used a Web browser. In my memory, browsers just exist after a point.
Anyway, here are some interesting bits from the Vanity Fair piece…
Everyone who has trumpeted hyperlocal news as the future of newspapers should read this hilariously merciless Bill Wyman post at Hitsville.
Wyman, who notes that he gets three newspapers a day, gives a brutal assessment of one edition of the Arizona Republic’s “Arizona Living” section — which includes such interesting stories as “Free burrito for teachers, ” “Post office food drive,” and “Fight Crohn’s and colitis” as well as
a short filler AP item (“Jump-start day sweetly, swiftly”) about how the Tootsie Roll company has a new product: “Maxxed Energy Pops, a cleverly packed energy drink in the form of a lollipop.” It’s almost hard to believe that life forms above the level of a somewhat dense tree sloth took part in the selection, editing, hed-writing and publishing of that piece of prose.
Yowza. I’m always wary of hyperlocal pushes because of the danger that papers will end up with lots of lame community-newsletter fluff like this. Of course there are ways to do hyperlocal that don’t result in stories-as-boring-calendar-items; Wyman himself suggests a much better approach to one of the Arizona Living stories. So let his post be a warning to journalists everywhere, hyperlocal or otherwise. Please, please, don’t end up like this:
It’s clear that everyone involved long ago had any bit of originality or innovation beaten out of them. They know that they can’t go wrong producing and designing the page to appeal to some imaginary doddering grandmother, so they scour the day’s press releases and then sit around and brainstorm to zero in on the bloodless, the trivial, and the utterly mundane.
From Matthew Yglesias:
Why not get political news from a political news outlet, movie reviews from a place that specializes in movies, and local news from an organization that’s really passionate about covering its community rather than viewing it as a JV form of journalism to be endured before moving on to something bigger?