[This article originally appeared in the March 1966 issue of Nieman Reports.]
I was in Greenville when the age of electronic journalism first came creeping in, and I have always thought that a kind of monument was erected there on the old Piedmont by my first Managing Editor, the late A. T. McCain. He was an appropriate man to do it, too—for he was one of that old breed that started out as Morse operators. He claimed to have been deafenedby the telegraph key, but it was a wonderfully selective deafness. He could detect the sound of a cork popping at a hundred yards, but he couldn’t hear anybody from the business office, and he could make out the composing room foreman only when he said “yes.”
Mr. Mac’s great moment came when the Piedmont got into the radio business and erected a 300-foot tower out on Hogback Mountain. Word came down that a picture of this marvel had to go on the front page. The cut came back from the engravers one column wide and 19 inches deep, and Mr. Mac headed for the saw. He put the top three inches on page one and jumped the rest to the truss ads. His response to the outraged cries from the front office always seemed to me a model of elementary logic.
“The damned thing looked the same all the way up and down.”
Well, broadcasting still looks pretty much the same all the way up and down. But it has certainly grown sideways, and shoved a good many newspapers over the edge in the process.…
On my own balance sheet, you [newspaper editors] are doing a little better than you used to—but I can’t say that it is really your fault. On the news side some of you finally seem to have recognized that you can only meet your electronic competition on the Texas League principle—you’ve got to hit ’em where they ain’t. And one place they conspicuously are not is in providing a systematic, comprehensive running interpretation of what’s going on in the world. They’ll get there first with the bits and pieces of news, and they’ll swamp you on a really big set piece like a political convention, but they’re not going to get out there and meet you in between. The broadcasting business isn’t even up to puberty yet, and it’s already so fat that it won’t put out the money and effort—and endure the controversy—required by fully effective use of its great documentary capacity. It’s a lot more profitable, and a lot safer, to give Dave Brinkley another 15 minutes of film clips and six more commercials than it is to turn him loose among our spreading social ills with a camera crew.
What this means is that broadcasting has settled down as a mass entertainment industry, with just a little frosting of news and public affairs programming. This may turn out to be in the public interest, convenience and necessity after all if it forces newspaper editors to go back to their original business, where you can still offer a unique service—back to the news and commentary trade.
Hard news, interpretation and advocacy—that’s where you can set the pace and broadcasting can’t meet you on your own terms. The morning newspaper I read these days is one that has recognized this elementary truth and set out to act upon it. Of course, the Los Angeles Times did not impair its financial health when it merged out the morning competition in the country’s biggest megalopolis. But, still, the Times is surrounded by no less than 11 television channels and a body of glassy-eyed citizens who seem to be natural-born TV viewers. The editors meet this condition by putting together a complete, well-written news report, backed up by expert comment on every serious subject from art to zoology. They have done this by (1) meeting the salary competition for first-rate talent, no matter the source, and (2) making room to use the result by throwing out most of the junk that used to clutter the paper, and by the best and tightest departmental organization I have seen anywhere.
The fact is that hard, cold cash register considerations now demand that every metropolitan newspaper cut out the trivia and treat seriously with its readers. Lou Harris has defined a highly significant area where the television audience is in retrograde—among people who are educated and have money enough to pay for something richer than bland television fare. The Harris poll reports:
“TV appears to be losing its audience among adults who have been to college, whose incomes are $10,000 or over, and among suburban residents.”
This ought to suggest several things to the most obtuse newspaper business office—one of them being that there is a core readership that can pay a high enough circulation rate to offset the mass advertising income lost to television. And since it’s a class audience it ought to be possible to jack up the rates for the advertising you do have left—on the demonstrable theory that only newspapers are reaching the big spenders.
Acting on this principle, newspapers undoubtedly will become leaner—which, I am told, is good for the health. But I think they also need to become meaner. If Lou Harris is correct, you have inherited by default the dependence of respectable citizens who go to college, live in the suburbs, and acquire more than their share of worldly goods. But you should not allow this to obscure the most profound truth I ever heard uttered before ASNE in my years as an active member—Jonathan Daniels’ admonition that journalism is not a respectable business. It would be an interesting exercise to see how many newspapers have foundered on the fatal error made by a publisher who stood in the bar of his country club and thought he was listening to the voice of the people. And now we have entered a remarkable era of expense accounts so flexible the fellow standing at the club bar next to the publisher is likely to be his editor.
You can’t justify your existence—and your special immunities under the Constitution—even with a superlative news report. You’re also supposed to be advocates. And this side of utopia, when you advocate something really important, and do so effectively, you’re going to split your following and outrage a good many of your customers, and very probably they’re going to be among your most important and influential customers.
Let us not leave this profound but abstract truth dangling in the air. Let me suggest to you the urgent, continuing assignment that confronts every editor of a newspaper of consequence.
You gentlemen are the ultimate custodians of The City.
It is possible, of course, that we may get blown up by a hydrogen bomb. But it is also possible that we may not be lucky enough to enjoy so neat and simple an ultimate solution—and that we will continue to have to live in those urban complexes that constitute your circulation territories.
If all of you decided to leave foreign policy to The New York Times and Walter Lippmann I wouldn’t be unduly alarmed.…
But when we come to The City—that presumed refuge of all the gods of our culture—you gentlemen are indispensable. This is your domain. A newspaper will certainly reflect the character of the community it serves, and if it is to survive I suggest that the metropolitan newspaper will also have to accept the obligation of shaping the character of that community.
You face real if fragmented competition on the national scene—from network TV and from magazines and books. But there in the city, and metropolitan, and all other zones where you and the circulation manager live, the newspaper is the only responsible voice.
I suppose, in charity, I should note the possibility that there are cities where broadcasters are performing notable local public services and providing strong local leadership in public affairs. I can only say that I don’t know of any. I most often find local TV, such as it is, a kind of obscene caricature of network TV. Local broadcast news, as I encounter it around the country, usually consists of 60-second airport interviews with people affluent enough to afford the services of a public relations firm. Since the interviewer ordinarily spends more time on camera than the subject, the only lasting impression I take away is that TV newsmen have remarkably good teeth.
No, you don’t have any local competition in your role as custodian of your city’s conscience—and no national competition either, since the meddling outsiders come in only when you have a political convention, a race riot, or some other natural disaster. Your ambulant colleagues take off once order is restored, and that, of course, is precisely when things get tough for a newspaper that accepts its obligation to tell the community not only how and why it went wrong, but what it ought to do about it, and where it is likely to go wrong next time.
…You can look out your office window and see your city pockmarked by all the signs of decay—physical, social and moral. It may be that most of your subscribers have blacked out these sights, planted them out with shrubbery in the comfortable refuges of suburbia. But you know what’s there—and you know what it means.
What it means is that we are not going to do anything effective about the cities until we tackle the problems of land use head-on. That means taking a new look at property taxes. It means taking a look at the manner in which the real estate promoters use land for what they happily call “tax shelter”—the whole system for interlocking state and federal taxes and exemptions and write-offs that seem to put a premium on bad land use and a penalty on good land use. It means really effective planning and zoning, with all the outraged cries of mother, home and free enterprise this is bound to evoke. It means a willingness to go to the mat with the landowners, the speculators, the promoters, the lending institutions, and all their fuglemen in and out of public office. It means, in short, taking on the richest and most influential people in town.
Why should you? Well, if for no higher reason, because the metropolitan press is the only agency that has a vested short- and long-range interest in making the American metropolis habitable. If you don’t do it, nobody will.
So, gentlemen, this is your assignment for today, and for this year, and the next, unless, of course, you decide to join the parade and sign on as editor of the shopping guide that has just become a new suburban daily out in West Euphoria. In that case you may have as much as 10 years left before the smog comes and automobiles glut the shopping centers—just about enough time, that is, to work your blood pressure up to a level suitable for residence in John Birch country.
Mr. Ashmore, a 1942 Nieman Fellow, is Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and is Director of Editorial Research of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This is an address he delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.