Tom Stites, a former newspaper editor and a deep thinker about the journalism craft, gave a speech last summer that won plenty of well-deserved attention. In that talk — which we guest-posted here, entitled “Is media performance democracy’s critical issue?” — he posed a key question about our future.
Now he’s back with an essay about the need for great journalism.Read it below:
Needed: More Excellence in Journalism
By Tom Stites
The phrase just keeps gnawing on my mind.
The gnawing started in September as I read Michael Kinsley’s essay in Time entitled “Do Newspapers Have a Future?” In it he describes The Los Angeles Times as “long the industry’s leading example of needless excellence” for its “bureaus around the world” and its “huge Washington Staff.”
And by singling out The Times as the “leading example,” Kinsley suggests that it is not alone among perpetrators, that there is plenty of excellence that could be discarded.
Excellence is needless? Needless to whom?
Kinsley doesn’t say but we can speculate.
His phrase would surely resonate with investors whose only aim is cutting costs in pursuit of maximum short-term profits. But what about the readers, the citizens?
And, speaking of citizens, what about our flagging democracy?
The seismic changes that are shaking journalism’s established institutions are inspiring important innovations that help. The “placeblog” boom and citizen journalism are generating lots of justified excitement as they buttress or replace crumbling newspaper coverage in local communities, thus buttressing democracy.
But the foreign and Washington coverage Kinsley attacks as needless is not local. Emerging Web journalism offers promising tactics for enriching national coverage but so far it hasn’t shown that it can replace reporting by experienced Washington and foreign correspondents. These reporters, who not only cover events and institutions based on years or decades of practice, also do so much of the enterprise reporting that is the finest fruit of journalistic excellence.
There are still some kinds of stories that only a correspondent can provide: on-the-ground reporting in remote places, the ambitious search for meaningful national and global patterns and trends, and exposing secrets that the powerful love to hide. Exposure of the CIA’s secret prisons in Europe and of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program leap to mind. Stories like this couldn’t be further from needless.
Because journalism is in an unprecedented state of flux it is the subject of vigorous public hand wringing, largely within two frames. One, exemplified by Kinsley’s piece in Time, is what will become of the companies that own big newspapers and the other mainstream media, and what will become of their properties. The other, largely an online phenomenon, is about the inherent biases and shortcomings of the MSM relative to the purer approaches of citizen journalism. Both of these frames yield useful discourse.
But there is a little-used third frame, a crucial frame that I’d like to hold up: What does our nation’s democracy need from journalism, and are we meeting this need?
Our democracy has rarely, if ever, been under such siege from forces working to rig our governments to do their bidding at the expense of the public interest: Corporations with the wealth and power of some nations flood Washington with dollars and lobbyists; the tiny number of Americans with vast and expanding wealth do the same; crony capitalists plunder the treasury with no-bid contracts, earmark deals, and tax giveaways; a theocratic strain of Christians pressures governments at every level to impose their narrow view of morality, and all these forces deploy ever-more-sophisticated communications tactics that drench Americans in manipulative messages.
Meanwhile, an imperialistic administration relishes using both open and insidious propaganda, paying journalists to place pieces spotlighting official views, turning out video press releases, and shaping monosyllabic yet symbol-laden messages like “stay the course” and “cut and run” to be hammered again and again not only in speeches and press conferences but also by talking heads and other allies in the media.
Liberals may take heart that by capturing both houses of Congress the Democrats should be able to limit some of the excesses, but this is likely to do very little or nothing to turn back the tide of dollars that overpower votes. Nor is President Bush’s acknowledgement that we’re not winning in Iraq likely to blunt the message-shaping genius of Karl Rove.
It is not journalism’s role to fix our broken democracy. But it is journalism’s role to serve democracy. The First Amendment — and the spirit of Tom Paine and hosts of his successors whose work calls forth the phrase public trust — enshrine that duty, a catalytic one in a democracy. I think it’s safe to say that this role is so crucial that unless journalism can find ways to strengthen itself and rise to today’s unprecedented challenges, other efforts to fix democracy are doomed to fail.
So, in this frame, all of us – media old and new, volunteer and corporate and not-for-profit, reporters and editors and photographers and bloggers, publishers and inventors, funders and investors – need to pour skill and energy into creating more excellence.
Now this is easy to say. Envisioning ways to strengthen journalism to the point that it’s seen as fulfilling the public trust in today’s challenging world is a task so daunting as to be a serious strain to the imagination. This will require not only a wide variety of committed journalists but also new journalistic institutions deep enough in resources that they can relentlessly create excellence that no sane citizen could ever consider needless. Some of these institutions will emerge from the energetic Web-based media. Others will have to be imagined, funded, and created. To me, the most challenging question is who, other than the deeply committed citizen journalists whose reach so far is so limited, has the right motivation plus the needed resources for strengthening journalism so it can do its crucial piece to save democracy?
I am hardly the final arbiter of what democracy needs from journalism, but I’d like to put forth some ideas.
Most broadly, we need not only all the journalistic excellence we can get but, more fundamentally, a steady stream of high quality, serious journalism that patrols a journalistic landscape broader than news organizations have ever explored. By my definition, serious journalism is based in verified fact passed through mature professional judgment. It has integrity. It engages readers with compelling stories and it appeals to their human capacity for reason. This is the information that people need so they can make good life decisions and good citizenship decisions. Serious journalism is accessible and relevant to its readers – and well told so that it’s easy to read.
Here are three areas of the broadening landscape whose coverage is crucial to democracy but where journalistic excellence is either in retreat or nonexistent:
Global economy – As technology shrinks our planet ever smaller and makes it more and more complicated and intertwined, what happens half way around the globe can have direct impact on the communities where we live. But in the face of this, news organizations have been closing foreign bureaus. Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor foreign correspondent, is taking a break after being held hostage in Iraq to study this troubling trend as a fellow of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. And not only are news organizations bringing foreign correspondents home, metropolitan newspapers across the land that once gave significant space to foreign news are changing their focus to give new emphasis to local news.
But the global village is upon us, and where is the global city editor our citizens need? A global city editor would spot the big stories out there that nobody is covering.
Let’s start with the World Trade Organization. It receives almost no coverage. But in 1994 the Senate ratified a treaty that makes democratically enacted national, state, and local laws subordinate to rulings handed down by unelected WTO panels that meet in private and offer no due process. Corporations as well as nations may initiate WTO proceedings, and there is no appeal.
Particularly at risk are local and state laws protecting the environment and working conditions. The WTO, whose authority comes from treaties ratified by 149 nations, may grease the skids of international trade but it also has the formal power to overrule the authority of We the People in our own communities. It is the antithesis of democracy. Democracy needs the WTO to be covered as the global government it is, tracing its decisions back to their local impacts – and to the corporations whose interests it serves at the expense of communities around the world.
And then let’s consider the transnational corporations, whose lobbyists made sure the Senate enacted the treaty that empowers the WTO. Few people understand the scale of these corporations, and that they’re getting bigger and bigger. The annual sales of Wal-Mart exceed the gross domestic product of Sweden, and by similar measure 52 of the largest 100 economies in the world in 2002 were corporations. (Source here.) Newspapers and broadcast news tend to cover these behemoths as business stories, as if the only people they affect are investors. But they have huge sway in Washington, in state capitals, in political campaigns, in Third World nations whose embryonic governments are defenseless against their power, in local communities in the United States, and in the lives of millions of Americans. Just ask someone whose job has been outsourced to a country with lower wages or whose pension has disappeared. To adequately serve democracy, journalism needs to cover the transnationals in a way that helps regular citizens understand the scope of their power and how it plays out in their lives.
Corruption – There have been other periods of endemic corruption in American history, but the scale — and the consequences — of today’s corruption is unprecedented. Yet as the tide of money rises ever higher in Washington and state capitals, news organizations are cutting back on their commitments to investigative journalism. If journalism were fulfilling its promise to democracy, how could it be that no reporters turned up even one of the epidemics of corruption that Elliot Spitzer found sweeping sector after sector of Wall Street players? There has never been more muck that needed raking, and an embarrassing amount of it, once exposed, turns out to have been lying there in plain sight for anyone to see. Journalism should be ashamed. Democracy can’t count on more prosecutors like Spitzer – so it needs to demand way more investigative reporting, not less. It also needs fresh techniques that present corruption not just story-by-story but also show broad patterns of continuing corruption.
Here’s an example: Democracy needs a continuously updated Web database of corporate malfeasance. What industrial sector leads the others in the number of law violations? What corporations hold the record in each sector for fines and settlements paid, in total dollars and as a percentage of market capitalization? What corporations stand out for a lack of violations? This information would have to be presented in an unassailably comprehensive and authoritative way so there could be no question of bias. If such a database existed, every change of the leaders in various categories would be news. And reporters everywhere could draw on the database for their stories. A reporter writing about a powerfully effective ad campaign, for example, might find it useful to report that the ads are effective at attracting customers to a company with a record of repeated fraud against its customers. A sidebar database would keep a rogue’s gallery of executives whose companies keep running afoul of the law, and track these executives as they change jobs.
One size misfits many
The ever-widening gap between the rich and everybody else creates an ever-widening gap between the journalism needs of the rich and of everybody else. To ensure that democracy has the informed citizens that are crucial to its health, it needs journalism to serve people on both sides of the gap. And journalism is failing.
Folks without health coverage need very different medical reporting from those who have it, and folks who earn weekly wages with poor to nonexistent benefits need different financial features than salaried professionals with substantial savings. For example, poorly paid people need guidance on how to avoid payday loan shops and other predatory lenders – and, if in their grip, strategies for getting free.
The have-nots, who far outnumber the haves in our society, need journalism that shows them how policy changes will impact their lives as much as the haves need to know how they will impact their investments. Employment and other economic reports have distinctly different meanings to folks on either side of the income gap.
But today’s mainstream journalism is aimed almost entirely at serving the haves, sending less-than-affluent Americans to what passed for journalism on broadcast and cable news shows. (For an exploration of how this phenomenon works, see my June 30 speech to the Media Giraffe Conference.)
Doing news coverage and service journalism that bring relevant information to the less than affluent is straightforward and easy to solve – if only the resources can be found to accomplish this.
A more challenging need is journalism that presents the truest possible picture of national economic life, shorn of Wall Street’s hype and bias and economists’ rosy lenses. One approach would be to create an index of economic indicators aimed at reflecting the economy the way the target audience experiences it, drawing from alternative perspectives on the GDP and quality-of-life indicators such as household income, access to health care, consumer borrowing, the personal debt-to-asset ratio, and the true jobless rate (taking discouraged workers into account).
The three areas outlined above present daunting challenge after daunting challenge, and an afternoon of conversation among any handful of readers of this article could greatly extend the list with good ideas. I’d love to be part of a discussion, for example, about how journalism can combat propaganda techniques used in the shaping of political messages. No one news organization could handle all of just this short list of ideas for ways journalism can serve democracy, and different ideas would work best in different journalistic settings.
Already not-for-profits like the Center for Public Integrity are committed to doing national- and global-scale investigative journalism that big news organizations are shedding (disclosure: the writer is a consulting editor for the Center), and more are stepping up. NewAssignment.net is a fascinating new entry in this area. A not-for-profit could rather easily create an index of economic indicators that are relevant to less-than-affluent Americans (or it could be a signature feature for a new news organization devoted to coverage that’s relevant to this group of people, the way the Dow-Jones Industrial Average is a signature feature for The Wall Street Journal).
The corporate databases outlined above would be a natural fit for a not-for-profit, and in fact many not-for-profits are already working in these areas. CorpWatch, for example, keeps a helpful industry-by-industry database of articles on corporate behavior, but a comprehensive database of the type outlined above would require a staff to create and maintain – and thus would require resources that few non-for-profits have.
Creating excellent journalism that’s meaningful to less-than-affluent people is much easier than distributing it effectively to the vast number of people in this category, and creating publishing structures to accomplish this – in print or on the Web – is a huge undertaking. The investment would be huge as well, though Web costs are coming down all the time. In this time of journalistic flux, what fresh revenue streams can be found so that publishing serious journalism for the less than affluent thrive? And who is motivated and has the resources to even test ideas like these, much less launch them? Or who has brainstorms about ways to achieve these ends with modest resources?
Perhaps it’s a failure of my imagination, but while bowing with admiration and gratitude to the growing contributions of citizen journalists, I see no present way to carry out the comprehensive journalism that democracy needs without sophisticated and expensive reporters and correspondents.
Multinational corporations, the global economy, and institutions like the World Trade Organization operate in great secrecy; covering them demands sophisticated reporting techniques and big travel budgets. While citizen journalists can team together to help investigative reporters work on some projects, most national-scale investigative projects require long days of digging and imaginative slogging to find highly disguised trails through mazes of documents and sources; this, too, is very costly. And then there is democracy’s need for journalism to find ways to detoxify propaganda, not to mention the vastly expensive need to launch new vehicles to cover the news in ways that are relevant to less-than-affluent Americans – and deliver it to them in forms they trust and welcome.
Perhaps ways will open as technology advances and dedicated people discover new and better ways to use it. But democracy is in need, deep need, right now. I, for one, can’t bear the idea of waiting to see what sorts of journalism happens to emerge over time.
The starting point in the search for people and institutions that will step up now begins with figuring out who is motivated. Psychoanalyzing major news organizations that spend money on large-scale Washington coverage and national and foreign correspondents, I find four motives beyond the profit motive:
It’s the franchise: The specialized readerships served by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal need the journalism these papers provide, and it can’t be provided without such staffs. The regional franchises of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and some other newspapers also require some staff commitment outside the home city, but not as much as the Big Three. (The franchises of the Associated Press and Reuters require significant Washington and foreign commitments as well; USA Today is in its own idiosyncratic category.)
Prestige advantage: In the fights to the death in two- and three-paper cities such as Philadelphia in the 1970s, some papers like The Inquirer opened the treasury for ambitious national and foreign coverage – and won the fight to survive as local monopolies.
Editorial and corporate ego: Once such newspapers expanded their Washington ambitions and sent reporters abroad, and won the fight for monopoly status in their city, profits surged and there was little reason to cut costs; the reporters and editors of such papers took pride in their accomplishments and, quite naturally, wanted to keep their good thing going. When such efforts won big prizes in the 1980s and into the 1990s, corporate owners would take ads in Editor & Publisher to brag.
Pure public service: The Christian Science Monitor, founded 98 years ago with an internationalist perspective and aimed at a national audience, is the flagship of a sophisticated publishing effort that arises from a small religious denomination’s commitment to the freeing power of truth through the written word. Washington, national and foreign reporting is in its bone and sinew – and sports coverage and wine columns are not. Until the late 1960s, about the time an ambitious Los Angles Times emerged from its chrysalis of mediocrity and The Washington Post began to cover an expanding federal government in depth, the Monitor was routinely on Time’s list of the nation’s 10 best newspapers. The Monitor still exudes excellence, albeit on a more modest scale than the big national papers.
In monopoly markets, prestige no longer is an advantage, at least not in the eyes of executives of publicly traded chains struggling to keep their stock prices from sagging further. To them, it looks like needless excellence. Editorial ego doesn’t impress these executives, and corporate pride in ambitious editorial effort is long gone. So two of the four motives for excellence in Washington, national and foreign coverage are dead, and only two survive: The franchise, and pure public service.
I believe it’s safe to presume that franchise-bound Times, Post, Journal, AP and Reuters will keep large rosters of correspondents, and that the rosters of regional and metro papers will continue to shrivel. The Big Three newspapers all address their coverage to elite audiences and offer little meaningful to folks on the other side of the income gap; the news agencies are only slightly better by this measure – standard foreign reporting is focused on diplomatic and economic issues of interest to policy makers, business and other elites. The journalism gap is at least as wide as the income gap.
Except for the Big Three and The Monitor, and except for occasional excellent public broadcasting and television newsmagazine efforts, no news organizations of any ambition are committed to serious national and international coverage. And, sadly, The Monitor is in a precarious place as its centennial approaches: Its existence depends on subsidy from a religious denomination that is small to begin with and clearly in decline. (The denomination does not report its membership, but has had recurring money struggles.)
So, other than one small, idiosyncratic religious movement, where in the United States might there be an institution that embraces a commitment to excellent coverage of the nation and the widening landscape of our shrinking world from a pure commitment to public service, to excellence that is not “needless”? Or, where are the people who will step forward to make such a commitment and act on it? Or, where are the people with the imagination to find profit-making approaches to journalism on the scale that democracy cries out for?
If an organization or people with resources and a pure commitment to public service are looking for ideas for shaping a journalistic venture where excellence is crucial, they might want to take a look at The Monitor’s website. It reports that Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, was urged to start what became the Boston-based Monitor in “a long letter from a local journalist and Christian Scientist, John L. Wright. In it, he told her he felt there was a growing need for a daily newspaper that ‘will place principle before dividends, and that will be fair, frank and honest with the people on all subjects and under whatever pressure’ — a truly independent voice not controlled by ‘commercial and political monopolists.’”
Tom Stites is publisher of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist religion. Contact him here.