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Backstory: Inside the Business of Newsby Ken Auletta
I was first infected with the idea of becoming a journalist while studying political science in graduate school. The bylines I remember belonged to Murray Kempton, David Halberstam, Homer Bigart, Gay Talese, I. F. Stone, Lillian Ross, among others. Why not, I thought, extend school through my life and get paid to learn, travel, and meet people? Journalism also held some allure as a profession where independence was prized. Didn't reporters brave Bull Connor's dogs to report on the struggle for civil rights? Didn't the New York Times face down President Kennedy when he wanted Halberstam yanked from Vietnam? Didn't the Washington Post back two cub reporters over an incident known as Watergate? I saw how Lillian Ross-and then years later, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe-perfected something called the New Journalism, a way to marry narrative fiction techniques to nonfiction. This was a profession that could educate and entertain. It could inspire change. True, it conferred power without responsibility, and thus was a wonderful way to prolong adolescence. But it was also a noble calling, a vital public service in a democracy where citizens rely on information to vote and to form and freely express opinions.
I'm still a sucker for the romance of journalism, but I'm also a realist. My adult lifetime graduate course has taught me that my métier's virtues, like those of the Greek heroes, often become its vices. Its very successes-illuminating the civil rights revolution, helping open America's eyes to Vietnam or Nixon's depredations or financial mismanagement-induced excess. Reporters wanted to be famous, rich, influential. As a media writer, I've reported on a new generation of windbags, of callow people who think they become investigative reporters by adopting a belligerent pose without doing the hard digging, of bloviators so infatuated with their own voice they have forgotten how to listen, of news presidents who are slaves to ratings, and of editors terrified they may bore readers. As in any profession, some folks take shortcuts.
The shortcut I worry most about today falls under the rubric of "business pressures." I worry about the owners of journalistic properties making business decisions that harm journalism. Recall the oft-told story of the wasp with a crippled wing that pleads with a frog to carry him across a pond. After promising not to sting him, the wasp finally induces the frog to lug him across. Arriving on the other shore, alas, the wasp stings him. As the frog is expiring he plaintively asks, "Why'd you sting me?"
"What can I tell you? I'm a wasp. It's my nature."
As a reporter, I've learned it's the nature of corporate executives to extol the virtues of synergy, profit margins, the stock price, cost cutting, extending the brand, demographics, ratings, and getting on the team. Journalists rarely share these concerns, so we often denounce what we see as dumb corporate decisions that do violence to journalism. We would do better to recognize that this is the nature of the business culture and figure out how to translate our journalistic concerns into language corporate executives can understand. Since they write the checks, somehow journalists must persuade our corporate chiefs to broaden their too narrow definition of success.
This won't be easy. The cultural divide between us is vast. The corporate buzzword synergy is rarely journalism's friend. The business assumptions that animate synergy-cost savings, "team culture," "leverage" of size-are often a menace to journalism. Take, for example, the proposed merger of CNN and ABC News that surfaced in the latter half of 2002. The key argument for "consolidating" CNN with a network news division was that upward of $200 million in cost reductions could be realized. This "synergy" would sweeten the bottom line and maybe provide CNN with the use of more visible ABC stars, but it's hard to see how it would improve news coverage. ABC would have access to CNN's more extensive bureaus overseas, but ABC, except in national emergencies, has continued to shrink international news. Early in 2002, ABC tried to replace its luminous internationalist newscast-Ted Koppel's Nightline-with David Letterman. The merging of CNN and ABC means that two competing newsrooms would be replaced by one.
Sometimes, the "independent" news division shows off its team spirit. In the spring of 2003, a news executive at CBS dispatched a proposal to the family of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who had been captured and wounded in Iraq, offering her exposure on various news programs. But the news executive didn't stop there. She noted that Viacom, the corporate parent, owned Paramount, which could make a movie of Lynch's heroics, and Simon & Schuster, which could offer a book, and MTV, a popular cable network, which might make her a cohost of a video show, and Infinity Broadcasting, the second largest radio network. The news executive put in the proper qualifications about how she could not speak for the movie or book or any other division. Nevertheless, a CBS News executive was making a pitch for the Viacom team. Similar synergistic proposals were received from other big media companies, including the HarperCollins publishing division of News Corp.
A corporate preoccupation with cost synergies is, of course, not new. Mark Willes, when he became the CEO of Times Mirror in the first half of the 1990s, lashed the company's newspapers, which included the Los Angeles Times, to lift profit margins from 8 percent to 16 percent. And Knight Ridder ordered its two Philadelphia papers to double profit margins. Gannett saw its stock soar partly because it enjoys double-digit profit margins. Editors at some Gannett, and other, newspapers have sometimes ordered reporters to skip press conferences and in-person interviews and instead sit at their computer terminals and retrieve information, thus improving "productivity" by filing more stories. It is old news that newsmagazines boost sales by dressing up their covers with celebrities, and despite the boom following 9/11, international news continues to be downsized.
For many years, media companies have succeeded in generating profit margins of 50 percent at their TV stations, the principal reason media giants want government to relax rules on how many stations they may own. Owners skimp on costs, particularly the cost of local news, which is usually a station's profit locomotive. So in succeeding in earning more than fifty cents on each dollar of revenue, they usually fail to produce worthy local newscasts. Similarly, distant group owners who now dominate local radio stations-like Clear Channel Communications-raise their margins by lowering local news costs, producing centralized, homogenized news that is pumped out to various stations.
As happened with network television, which became more preoccupied with ratings as it lost market share, so it goes with print journalism. Publishers ask why we need such expensive bureaus in D.C. and state capitals. Why so many seriously boring stories on government? Why tie up our best reporters and writers on long investigative reports on poverty or race or housing when they could monitor services our readers use-like mammograms-or write vivid features? Why, nervous executives ask, can't we pepper the mix with more gossip, more marketing-driven and friendly news, more news readers or viewers can use, more features that will please our advertisers? Why, the question recurs with depressing frequency, do journalists have to be such scolds?
At the same time, as media companies get bigger, the role of the journalist within them is diminished. Inside a behemoth like Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, or Clear Channel, news rarely matches the profit margins of other divisions, such as cable or programming, and thus loses internal clout. And as media companies converge, a premium is placed on teamwork. Occasions for journalistic conflicts of interest thus proliferate. To a Disney or GE executive, synergy is achieved when ABC's Good Morning America broadcasts from Disney World or when NBC's Today show features stars from its entertainment division. To AOL Time Warner, synergy was achieved when Warner Books won the right to publish retiring GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch's memoir, promising to enlist the support of its various divisions to promote the book.
GE, which has huge business interests in China, leaned on its NBC Sports to apologize to China for Bob Costas's perfectly reasonable mention of human rights abuses during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics. "We wanted to make it clear that we didn't intend to hurt their feelings," said an apologetic NBC spokesman. Nor, presumably, did NBC want to get off the team and hurt the business interests of its corporate parent, General Electric. Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom/CBS, and Gerald Levin, the former CEO of AOL Time Warner, each went out of his way to attack critics of the Chinese government, hoping to win entrée to the world's largest market.
The cultural gap between the business and news divisions at media companies is as wide as the gap between scientists and government that C. P. Snow wrote about nearly a half century ago. Media corporations prize teamwork to create a "borderless" company that eliminates defensive interior barriers among divisions, strive to use leverage to boost sales, and push synergy. But journalists are meant to prize independence, not teamwork, and to value distance from advertisers or sources, not synergies with them. We journalists need borders-that is to say, a degree of independence-to do our jobs. We don't aspire to a "borderless" company because we want the advertising department to stay the hell out of the newsroom. The "leverage" journalists seek is the kind that pries loose the story, not the kind that boosts the parent company's other "products."
It frustrates those on the business side that journalists often fail to recognize that they are part of a business. If the business fails to make money, how attract investors or justify squandering the pension moneys invested by widows or giant shareholders? The Times Mirror Company can be faulted for the way it killed a fine newspaper, but if New York Newsday really hemorrhaged more than $100 million and had no prospect of earning a profit, then Times Mirror eventually had no choice but to put it to rest. General Electric can be faulted for the way it treated NBC News when it took over that network in 1986, but not for seeking to learn why nearly half the stories assigned by the news desk never aired.
If journalists hope to bridge the cultural divide, they might start by understanding the value of earning a profit. More profits can mean hiring more reporters, or more time to report stories. They might also learn to advance business reasons to support journalistic claims. There are, for example, sound business reasons to zealously guard the credibility of journalism. USA Today has gained credibility-and awards-by relaxing strictures on story length and by offering more in-depth reports. In turn, these are touted in advertisements to build up its brand value. A TV reporter perceived as a gunslinger will lose both viewers and potential interviews. The Los Angeles Times's credibility was tarnished by its secret advertising deal with Staples, making it harder to attract top editorial talent, at least for a while. Ditto the Wall Street Journal after Foster Winans or the New York Times after Jayson Blair. Sully the credibility and you damage the brand. These may not be easily quantifiable, but they are nevertheless real.
Journalists also have to confront the profit margin argument. They need show how a 20 percent profit margin (versus, say 15 percent) may mean cutting bone, not fat; how the higher target means the newsroom will not be able to launch the kind of investigative stories that win respect and awards, and that bureaus will be shuttered. Business executives like to quantify things, and so journalists will have to get specific: You want more coverage of Islam or Korea, or a series on immigration? You can't have it and still achieve a 20 percent profit margin-unless you want us to eliminate our bureau in the state capital. Yes, I know shareholders want a 20 percent margin-but not if in the long run it means they own a diminished asset. The next time a media executive like Michael Eisner of Disney expresses pride in the work of ABC News and insists that costs can be curbed without harm to the journalistic mission, someone has to ask him: Do you really believe ABC can effectively cover the world-as it did in the fall of 2002-with only five overseas correspondents? When the networks buy footage from an overseas picture service, they usually tack on a voice-over and claim they are covering a hot spot, but a picture is no substitute for reporting. It does not provide the context or authority that media executives always insist sets network news apart. Usually only a reporter on the ground who speaks the local language and has mined various sources and is familiar with the nation's culture and traditions can provide such context. Similarly, the wire service dispatches relied on by many Tribune papers and other chains cannot set those newspapers apart.
The public is no mere spectator to this dialogue. If readers don't trust journalists, if they cynically believe we're all in the tank, or make things up, or push our own political agendas, politics will become even more shrill and uncivil with no trusted referee to sort out the facts. We would be perceived as partisans, the way too many European journalists are. If journalism was not about more than profits, we would not receive special protections under the First Amendment. We receive such sanction because in a democracy voters get much of their information from the press. While journalism is about concrete things like reporting facts, it's really about fulfilling a public trust. That trust can't be synergized or quantified, but you know it when you lose it.
Synergy and public trust are two of several themes explored in this collection of articles. With one exception, each was written for The New Yorker, and in one case-"Tabloid Wars"-I include a piece The New Yorker did not run. I have sometimes added material excised at the time for space reasons. The Howell Raines profile, for example, adds about five thousand words that were cut from the original piece, which ran at seventeen thousand words. After each piece I add a postscript, including an analysis of post-Jayson Blair controversies at the New York Times. The pieces start at the top of the profession with the New York Times, then plunge into the synergy abyss, go on to explore various news business strategies, trying to sketch where journalism was back once, where it has gone since then, and where it is going next.
The process of compiling and editing this collection happened to coincide with membership on President Lee C. Bollinger's task force to explore the future of the Columbia School of Journalism. Over the course of six dinners, the thirtyplus members of the task force delved into what was wrong with contemporary journalism and what the country's foremost journalism school might do to better train journalists.
As we went around a large rectangular dinner table at a club in New York City, task force members discussed the varied ills of modern journalism-business pressures to achieve ratings or circulation gains and how this often trivializes news and produces infotainment; the journalistic game of Gotcha! and how this spurs reporters to chase headlines without understanding what they're after; the bimbo factor of dumb reporters (or dumb questions) without a clue what to ask or who pursue mindless stories without context; reporters who are full of attitude, not information, who think it is okay to be cynical, as opposed to skeptical, and who adopt a fake adversarial pose without having done the legwork; the conformity of pack journalism; the lack of time that leads to hurried stories.
An inescapable truism about journalism is that form dictates content. The form of journalism-gimme a headline, gimme a story in the next hour or two, and gimme it in 500 or 250 words-subverts the content. It's easy for someone who is allowed 20,000 words and months to report a New Yorker story to say this, but it's nevertheless true that most editors don't allow reporters enough time or space to get a story's facts and context right. One hopes that a journalism education would address these ills, would induce students, as historian Alan Brinkley said at one meeting, to aspire not to get a job but to be a great journalist.
Shaping a journalism curriculum, we all learned, is no simple feat. Questions came at us with machine-gun speed. Is journalism to be taught as a craft? Do you offer separate craft courses-how to write a lead or include the who, what, when, and where of a story? Or do you include the craft elements in each course? Is there a body of knowledge a journalist should possess? How much time should be devoted to mastering writing as opposed to mastering reporting? Should on-the-job training be emphasized or study? Should a journalist be trained as a specialist in a given field or as a generalist? Should it take one year or two to receive a degree? And if two, can students afford the steep tuition? How does one teach what task force member Mike Oreskes called a journalistic way of thinking-a mind-set that helps a reporter become what another member, Karen Elliott House, called a truth seeker, sorting truth from a welter of "facts"?
Each of these questions flows back to what I think of as the tree-trunk question: How best to train a professional journalist? In turn, this core question assumes that while someone can be a fine journalist without a journalism degree, journalism is not a walk-on profession. It requires training, just as a split end and quarterback repeatedly practice pass routes or a violinist again and again rehearses a concerto. This is a vital assumption for it justifies the special role journalists play in a democracy. While we are not licensed as lawyers or doctors, and not as extensively trained, we are, in effect, accredited to sort out fact from fiction, to decide what is news and what is not, what is more and also less important, what the public needs to know to make decisions in a democracy. The myriad questions about what to include in a journalism school curriculum are all mere branches of this tree.
There is at least one other critical question a journalism school should ask, and it is one that President Bollinger and the task force member he boldly induced to become dean, Nicholas Lemann, asked of this task force: Do you design a journalism school curriculum to prepare journalists to function in the commercial world as it is or for the way you wish journalism to be? Do you train journalists to excel at the way the game is played today or do you train them to reform the way the game is played? I believe a journalism school should be a beacon, not a reflection, educating not just its students but their prospective employers.
The acorn of good journalism is humility. Humility is more essential than good writing or hard work-though these are obviously vital. Humility is required to use two of a journalist's irreplaceable tools: the curiosity to ask questions and the ability to listen to the answers. Each requires modesty because each requires us to assume we don't already know the answers. Asking and listening assume an ability to understand someone's position, to empathize. Sources talk to journalists for many reasons-because they have something to say; because they are vain and believe in themselves; because they wish to protect themselves should we be talking to adversaries; because they honestly believe they have something to sell; because the publication, or the journalist, carries some weight. But sources also talk if they sense that a reporter genuinely seeks understanding (and not just a headline). Sensing this, they are more likely to open up and to help a journalist to better sort truth from fiction.
Criticism helps keep journalists-like politicians-humble, as we were all reminded in the spring of 2003 when the New York Times was convulsed by the Jayson Blair scandal. After the paper published a 7,200-word account of how reporter Blair had stolen the work of others and tricked his editors into printing lies, the staff of the Times went into an uproar. Management called a mass meeting at a nearby movie theater whose entrance was guarded by an army of competing reporters and cameras. To enter the theater, Times journalists had to pass a phalanx of preying reporters and flashing bulbs. Most shunned eye contact and pretended not to hear their names called; some shielded their faces, like mobsters entering a police station. For the first time in most of these reporters' lives, they experienced what it must feel like to be on the other side of a story-to be embarrassed, to duck questions or worry about what they might say, about whether their quotes would get garbled, about how they might look. Should I talk? Did I say the right thing? Will my words get me in trouble? Is that snide bastard going to do me in?
Should he return to editing, Howell Raines-the departed executive editor of the Times-would probably be a more sensitive and empathetic editor after the awful experience he endured. His humbling experience became a universal experience. Those of us in journalism were reminded that when our foremost paper is sullied, so are we. Nor was what happened at the New York Times the usual "inside baseball story" editors deride when they say no one except other journalists are interested in what goes on in a newsroom. New York's two tabloid newspapers, the News and the Post, each plastered the ouster of Raines and his deputy on their June sixth front pages. It was big news because every citizen is reliant on news and the "facts" journalists disseminate. No journalistic institution's facts are more relied upon than those in the New York Times.
But the backstory behind these headlines is about the humility Raines and his publisher and most journalists-or anyone else infected by power-often lose. In their embarrassment, they learned what defeated candidates, disgraced politicians, indicted officials, or aging sports stars must: Nothing breeds humility like independent scrutiny, the "check and balance" of rigorous criticism or competition. The work that follows is meant to serve that end.
June 10, 2002
Copyright © 2003 by Ken Auletta
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