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Guest Posting — Needed: More Excellence in Journalism, Part 4

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. It appears here in four parts. (You can also read the entire essay here; we’ll also post a PDF version soon. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Here’s the final installment :

Needed: More Excellence in Journalism

Fourth of four articles

By Tom Stites

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.’”

(You can read all of these postings as one essay here.)
Tom Stites is publisher of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist religion. Contact him here.

2 Comments on “Guest Posting — Needed: More Excellence in Journalism, Part 4”

  1. #1 The 'Broken Heart' of Rogers Park
    on Jan 11th, 2007 at 3:48 am
  2. #2 Good Or Popular « HART UP NORTH
    on Apr 11th, 2007 at 9:38 am

    […] rarely the same thing. But good can build loyaly, as Mark Hamilton argues. I hope he’s right. Tom Stites and many others think that’s right. In the end, that should give Colburn some […]