Picture this scene: A newspaper editor interviews an applicant whose resumé shows little newsroom experience. “So kid, you want to be a journalist. Take this copy of ‘The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril.’ Read it. If you still want to work in the news business, write me an 800-word essay on why you want to be a journalist, then come back to see me in a week. If not, keep the book. It’s on me.”
This exercise might be a good thing to ask each journalism applicant to do. “The News About the News,” written by Leonard Downie, Jr., the executive editor of The Washington Post and Robert G. Kaiser, the Post’s former managing editor, provides a stark and honest assessment of the current news business. It is an important and thoughtful examination of the roles journalists and journalism play in Americans’ lives and in their democracy. After reading it, anyone thinking of working as a journalist in the 21st century will have a clearer understanding—and warning—about what to expect.
In their analysis, Downie and Kaiser don’t pull any punches. The consolidation of many news organizations and media companies into just a few Wall Street-driven corporations for which newsgathering is not the primary business has weakened news operations. More importantly, in many instances, quality of content and civic concern are sacrificed in the quest for high profit margins. But as this book points out, places still exist in large and small communities where there are opportunities to practice quality journalism. And the authors document how topnotch news operations can also be good for the company’s bottom line.
The arguments presented in “The News About the News” aren’t idealistic. After all, the authors work for a news organization that places great emphasis on strong economic performance. And they aren’t naive. Throughout the book, Downie and Kaiser acknowledge that “journalism won’t exist without financial support—someone has to pay the journalists and the expenses of gathering news.” They also make the point, by offering strong examples and frank testimony, that the evolving “show Wall Street the money” attitude of corporate owners has altered the jobs (and outlook) of people most responsible for the quality of journalism in news organizations. Instead of the laser-like focus on tough, accurate reporting and good writing, newsroom leaders are forced to divert their attention to financial considerations.
“Newspaper editors and television news directors … have been held more accountable for controlling costs and increasing profits than for improving thequality of their journalism,” Downie and Kaiser observe. They point particularly to newspaper chains Knight Ridder and Gannett and to corporations that own networks and local stations such as General Electric and Disney.
The authors try to be optimistic about the future of newspapers and the Internet as places where good journalism can flourish. They also look with a hopeful eye at the prospects for broadcast journalism but, in this attempt, they aren’t as convincing. (Perhaps this is because the authors have made their careers in newspapers.) Take this example from their look at broadcast news: “Heather Nauert had only her blond, youthful good looks and a sincere desire to become a television star when she joined the world of talkers on the Fox News Channel,” they write. “… What were the thirty-year-old’s qualifications? ‘When I first saw her I thought Heather was our demographic, that she could bring in younger people,’ Fox News executive producer Bill Skine said. ‘When you have a pundit who is young, and knows what they’re talking about, they exude more energy.’”
The Internet is emerging as a place where people can find news. And it is also a place where media organizations are looking to present news in original and more effective ways. These aspects of the role of new media receive thorough examination. But the authors fail to discuss another area in which the Internet is having a critical impact on journalism by changing the ways in which reporters find information, reach sources, and report the news. Questions about this are left unaddressed. It would have been good to hear the authors’ views on whether easier and increased access to information through technology (no matter where the journalist might be) is making news coverage more competitive, accurate and complete. Or whether it gives reporters the ability to present broader perspectives. Perhaps such topics can be covered in a future edition.
Kaiser and Downie make a strong effort to highlight examples of best practices. These illustrate how quality news can flourish. And in doing this, they don’t restrict themselves to large metropolitan and national papers. At times, however, the book seems to become almost too clinical in its examination. What is missing are examples of the passion that people contribute to creating great news organizations, large and small, an attribute the authors know good journalism requires. Finding that passion, providing an environment where it is appropriately focused and nurtured, might be critical ingredients in keeping newspapers, news magazines, broadcast news outlets, and evolving Internet news operations economically strong and vital contributors to our civic strength in the 21st century.
Seth Effron, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is special projects director at the Nieman Foundation.