I usually find when a journalist writes about journalism, the result is boring, or self-serving, or both. But with all the discussion surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy The Wall Street Journal, the sales of the Tribune Company and
Reuters, and complaints from shareholders about the performance of New York Times stock, I’ll take a chance.
I remember when I was in school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, trying to decide between two career interests, the law and journalism. The law seemed the more serious profession. But it was the time of the Watergate scandal. The journalists were the heroes, and the lawyers were all going to jail.
I chose to be a hero. As I look back, I figure I would have made a lot more money had I chosen the law. Otherwise, I remain satisfied with my decision.
Back then there was much debate over the role of the business side. To what extent should business concerns influence editorial content? Do we put the most sensational story on the front page, or the most important? Newspapers made money by selling papers but also by selling ads. What if a story concerned an advertiser? How many pages should be devoted to features, comics, sports and other types of content more designed to increase sales than to inform and educate? The same concerns were debated in broadcast newsroom, the only difference being the battle was over minutes of air time instead of pages in the paper.
So today people are asking, “Will Rupert Murdoch ruin The Wall Street Journal should his News Corporation succeed in its effort to acquire the Journal’s owner, Dow Jones & Company?” News Corp is known for its sensational tabloids like The New York Post, and some assume Murdoch would bring that sensationalism to the Journal. This seems absurd to me. It doesn’t take much to print a newspaper these days, so the value of the property is its people and its reputation. Turning the Journal into a tabloid would cost it its well deserved reputation as one of the world’s greatest newspapers, and its people would run for the exits. That would be stupid. And Murdoch is not a stupid man.
The better question to ask today is the same one people were asking when I was in school. “Do we run news organizations like we run any other business, or are they something else?” When I was in school there were three commercial networks with evening news reports. The PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Report had not yet begun. All three news organizations lost money but were supported by the founders of their networks as a public service price to pay for the use of the airwaves which generated large profits through their entertainment programs during most of the day.
Now the three commercial networks are five, there are dozens of news and information networks on cable, news is available in a wide variety of forms on the internet, and all are trying to make a profit. Not that there’s anything wrong with a profit. But there is no question that the focus on profit and double digit growth rates has meant fewer sources for news, or at least what I call news, even as it has meant more sources of information.
All I know is what I see. The latest trend for newspaper is called hyper-local, which means focus on your town, right down to the neighborhood level and leave the national and international news to the Times and the Journal and the few other newspaper which still maintain the infrastructure that kind of coverage requires. It is, I think, a real loss.
The producers of the evening news broadcasts now know they rarely deliver breaking news. The cable channels and websites get to do that. But the commercial networks have found a niche in longer form, in depth and enterprise reporting. Some of it is quite good, but the audience for these programs is both shrinking and aging and that does not bode well for this type of reporting in this profit driven age. The newsmagazines now look like the celebrity gossip sheets; and, the web, where we are told the young are getting all their information, is for the most part recycling that information, not gathering it. What happens when the primary sources of that information fold up shop?
My point is that it does not matter if an owner is hands on, like the Sulzbergers at the Times, or hands off, like the Bancrofts at Dow Jones. What matters is what kind of journalism they promote. Murdoch is reportedly in the hands on camp, but he owns media properties which appeal to a wide range of sensibilities when it comes to content. He most certainly could run the Journal in a manner which upholds its traditions… if the readers demand it.