RELATED ARTICLES Nine Principles of Journalism
1. “Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.”
2. “Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.”
3. “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.”
4. “Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.”
5. “Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.”
6. “Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and comment.”
7. “Journalists must make the significant interesting and relevant.”
8. “Journalists should keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive.”
9. “Journalists have an obligation to personal conscience.”
Like the good journalists they are, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have that proverbial nose for news. So, too, does Nieman Reports exhibit a good sense of timing by focusing its summer 2001 edition on the new book by these two keen observers of the nation’s press. “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect” arrives at an opportune time. The news has become the news.

On one hand, the spring season is awards time for the country’s newspapers and magazines, and that has a restorative effect on many of us. It reminds us of the range and depth of good journalism being practiced by many journalists and news organizations, large and small, around the country. Experienced editors and writers who sit on scores of competition juries often remark upon how extraordinary the entries are, how hard it is to pick winners out of dozens of submissions. Along with that comes a sense of well-being about the state of this craft.

But this spring also has brought about a very public combination of challenges— some new, some old with a new head of steam—to producing serious journalism.

A slowing economy has meant cutbacks in staff and space at many news organizations, two commodities that have proven tough to restore once they are lost. Dramatic first-quarter reversals in the stock market wounded a number of new dot-coms and even killed a few. Newspaper-owned Web sites, although benefiting from the removal of advertising revenue competitors through the demise of some Internet rivals, now face the challenge of maintaining operations—that, in some cases, lose tens of millions of dollars annually—in a down market rather than in the midst of a 10-year boom.

The latest circulation statistics show fractional gains for some of the top 20 newspapers, but the overall decline of the past several years continues.

Editorial standards are under pressure. They are challenged by the increase in tabloid-style revelations that have unfolded in the past few years, the growing usage of previously unacceptable language on television and in print, and the acceptance by some of what is called attitude and edge in the way stories are presented to readers.

The quality and scope of network TV news seems to continue declining. The U.S. networks—except for CNN— long ago abdicated any claim to seriously covering global news, although arguably it has never been more important for American audiences than in this era of globalization. Unless American troops are in action somewhere, what coverage there is of conflict abroad will usually involve a British reporter on the scene, with pictures by German or Japanese camera crews.

The trend to greater conglomeration in the media, in which more and more journalistic enterprises are no longer owned by companies whose main business is journalism, and whose main commitment is to journalism, continues. The conflicts of interest inherent in reporting on these conglomerates can only become greater.

The demand for higher profits or for maintaining already high short-term earnings by shareholders, corporate managers, boards of directors and Wall Street, shows no sign of abating, nor is it likely to. Spreading in newsrooms is the sense that the obligation to the news-consuming public is being eroded by the primacy of uncompromising financial goals, well beyond the common sense belt-tightening that goes with any economic contraction. There is also the proliferation of non-journalistic talk shows (that viewers often confuse with journalism), an emphasis on “infotainment,” a confusing mix of professionally gathered news and ever-increasing outlets for unreliable chatter.

Something else happened this spring. Jay Harris, publisher of Knight Ridder’s San Jose Mercury News, found himself at odds with the parent company’s profit goals and plans for coping with declining advertising revenue, and he resigned. This surprising event brought into sharp focus the combination of factors creating a sense that something is wrong in a way that feels different from what has come before. Addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors [ASNE] in April, Harris said he now found himself “at the symbolic center of a debate that extends in substance and consequence well beyond the specific circumstances surrounding my resignation.

“The drive for ever-increasing profits is pulling newspapers down,” Harris said. “What troubled me,” he said of the company’s strategic planning meetings, “was that little or no attention was paid to the consequences of achieving ‘the number.’ There was virtually no discussion of the damage that would be done to the quality and aspirations of the Mercury News as a journalistic endeavor or to its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the community. As importantly, scant attention was paid to the damage that would be done to our ability to compete and grow the business.”

It might seem odd that Harris, a publisher, resigned, rather than a top editor. Yet it might be that Harris’s action has greater impact precisely because he combines the credibility of a knowledgeable business executive with journalistic arguments that few editors could better articulate.

My sense of why Harris’s resignation and reasoning is so important also extends to the fact that it involves a good newspaper, and newspapers remain at the core of American journalism. They provide the local, national and international reporting and analysis that are central to an informed public and to a sense of community. They drive much of the coverage by other media. People talk about what they read in newspapers. Newsrooms have the trained staffs and resources to cover the news comprehensively, in depth, aggressively, and to stick with stories that matter to citizens. They have the best chance of upholding standards, of sorting out news from hip-shooting opinion or entertainment, of informing in a way that is durable and reliable.

Another important speech this spring fits into the rich collection of refreshing journalistic thought exemplified by the new Kovach and Rosenstiel book and Harris’s address to the ASNE. This was an address Nieman Curator Bob Giles made to the Inland Press Association conference in Chicago in March. In that speech, Giles noted that “the plea to redefine financial success” being made by some editorial commentators—asking management and Wall Street to set more reasonable profit goals—“runs against two hard realities: We’re still a business, and markets rule.” But newspaper executives are themselves blameworthy, Giles reported, since they “have little to say about the value of news when they are making their pitch to the market analysts” on Wall Street. This is a simple yet important point that rarely is made.

Using a transcript of a presentation Gannett executives made to the Credit Suisse First Boston Media Conference in December, Giles pointed out, “the word ‘journalism’ does not appear. Newspapers are spoken of as products and stories as content. There is no mention of investments to improve coverage…no mention of how newsrooms are serving readers.” Yet, as Giles’s words remind us, “News is why advertisers find newspapers so attractive. News is what sells newspapers to most buyers. News drives market share.”

Giles and two journalism magazines—the American Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher—also noted that at least one publisher—Donald Graham of The Washington Post—did speak to the financial analysts about the relationship between the values of journalism and the business of newspapers. “Our journalism, which I know is not the focus of your interest but is the focus of mine, is better than ever,” Graham said.

In “The Elements of Journalism,” Kovach and Rosenstiel make a related point about what happens when journalism strays from news and toward infotainment. They focus on local television but their point is applicable to print. “The evidence suggests that attracting audiences by merely engaging will fail as a business strategy for journalism over the long run,” they report. Studies show that “of those who do watch local news, more than half those surveyed no longer care which station they watch.” Also, they report, “five of the top seven reasons that people are no longer watching local TV news are that it lacks substance.” Finally, when news gets turned into entertainment, it plays to the strengths of other media. Although such a strategy might build an audience in the short run, it’s an audience whose loyalty is shallow and will easily switch to the next most enticing thing.

So news is central. That is the key message. Newspapers, which drive coverage of news, are also central. And strong editors are critical in challenging forces that threaten to weaken the vigorous journalism that has been, and remains, vital to our democracy. Although Jay Harris took a bold step, one that threw a much-needed, high-profile spotlight on the problem, top editors need to stay inside and fight, fairly and responsibly.

Of course, a news organization needs to be profitable to produce good and frequently expensive reporting, hire the best talent, and withstand threats from advertisers or lawsuits. And sometimes the budget has to be trimmed and cuts absorbed.

But right now journalists are working in a new environment. The ascendancy of market forces is more pronounced. Ownership, in too many places, is more diffuse and less committed. And boards of directors and financial managers might need a refresher course about the value of news, the concept of a public trust, and the obligations and role in a democracy of a free and aggressive press.

Top editors must be educators, too. They must remind and educate. And mid-level editors must make sure their bosses assume this role by making sure they know that reporters and desk editors expect them to defend vigorously what they do and why they choose to do it. Today’s top editors must also choose the next generation of editors wisely, seeking out those who hold the same commitment to strong, no-punches-pulled journalism that brought them into the business years ago. As non-journalistic corporations gather more and more control over news outlets, they’ll likely strive to place in key editorial positions those who have that conglomerate mentality and allegiance. So hiring decisions made now assume an importance they might not have had in the past.

In today’s business climate, demands on executive and managing editors are substantial as they devote more and more of their time to business matters. That is not necessarily bad if that time includes the education of their business colleagues on the value of high-quality news reporting and enterprising journalism. Yet this increased attention to non-news matters can also mean losing control of a newsroom by unintentionally suggesting there are things other than journalism driving it and the news organization. Reporters are trained to sense shifts; they can sense that kind of diffusion as well.

Newspapers seeking to extend their reach onto the Web and television can also alter the quality of news the public receives. Top editors on many newspapers spend a lot of time these days helping to define and develop new outlets for their papers. This is important to the future of the organization because it is a way to reach the young people who are not reading newspapers. But it can also divert the attention of editors and reporters away from the kind of focus on, and pursuit of, both comprehensive daily reporting and the in-depth reporting that grows from strong daily coverage. Adding layers of different media coverage eats into valuable reporting time. And barring big increases in staff size, this has to have an effect on the quality of news that reaches the reader.

Allow me a brief detour here to mention what to some has become discredited news, while to others it is just what the doctor ordered for sagging circulation and ratings. These are the big and sensational stories—the O.J. Simpson murder case, the death of Princess Diana, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the Elían Gonzáles custody saga, and many others that have a strong tabloid flavor. I am not among those in the press who are critical of this coverage. Although these episodes certainly diminished politics and the press at times, they were all powerful, multidimensional stories with enormous reader interest; stories that cannot be covered gently or with one reportorial hand tied willingly behind ones back. For the most part, I thought the major newspapers and networks handled the coverage well. The overwhelming sense of discomfort was the mind-numbing repetition of the most salacious details by 24-hour cable channels.

Newspapers have survived challenges from the telegraph, radio, television and, at least for now, the dot-com invasion. And as Kovach and Rosenstiel remind us, sensationalism, ultimately, has always given way to a national demand for, and understanding of, the need for serious news. “As the immigrants of the 1890’s moved into the middle class in the 20th century, the sensationalism of Yellow Journalism gave way to the more sober approach of The New York Times,” they write. As the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression, again gossip and celebrity was swept aside by the public’s need for serious news that lasted through the cold war. Big newspapers survived and flourished.

It has always been interesting to me to speculate on what the stature and stock price of The New York Times or The Washington Post would be today if these papers—and their committed publishers—had not pursued the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. In each instance, adherence to their journalistic obligation beat back resistance from some of their top business advisers. Perhaps we can’t point to any similar decision-making juncture in recent times. But the kind of slow erosion being experienced today can, over time, make those kinds of bold decisions even harder. Newspapers have been declining in numbers and in circulation for several years now. As Kovach and Rosenstiel note, “when the newspaper industry in the 1980’s began to try to address its readership losses, it emphasized layout, design and color.” Prototypes of new sections had designs with boxes that read, “Text will go here. Text will go here. Text will go here.”

Maybe what they should have written in those boxes was “News will go here.” Perhaps it’s not too late to scratch out one word and replace it with another.

Journalism, like all pursuits, needs to evolve and grow with the times. But as Kovach and Rosenstiel’s book attests, there are roles and principles that have guided successful journalism since its beginnings, and these retain the power to restore trust with citizens who depend on the press to help them maintain a democratic society.

Michael Getler is the ombudsman at The Washington Post. He was formerly the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune. Before that he was deputy managing editor of The Washington Post.

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