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Summary:

Newspapers are suffering from a number of problems, but one is the nature of the product that many still produce — the monolithic, ruthlessly objective, single-voiced editorial style most have grown accustomed to doesn’t work in a world where anyone and everyone can be a publisher.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may be buying newspapers — a move that is probably as much about cash flow and real estate as it is a long-term investment thesis — but he can’t possibly buy them all, and that leaves the rest of the industry struggling to try and confront the issues that are causing their decline. One of those issues is the ongoing disruption in the advertising world, but another is that the product newspapers offer is arguably increasingly out of touch with what readers want. The monolithic, ruthlessly objective, single-voiced editorial style that newspapers have grown so accustomed to doesn’t work in a world where anyone and everyone can be a publisher, a reporter, a columnist or an editorial writer.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has written often about this problem, which he calls the “View From Nowhere,” and how the attachment not just to objectivity but to a kind of inhuman, artificially-balanced viewpoint is damaging newspapers and their credibility. What’s more, Rosen argues that it is bad for society as well, since it deprives people of the information they need to make important judgments about issues that affect their lives. And what is the “View From Nowhere?” As he put it:

It’s Bill Keller insisting that “torture” is the wrong word for the New York Times to use in describing torture because it involves taking sides in a dispute between the United States Government and its critics. It’s Howard Kurtz suggesting that Anderson Cooper was “taking sides” when he called the lies of the Egyptian government lies… And it’s that lame formula known as he said, she said journalism.

USA Today’s new publisher says more voices are needed

There are signs that at least some newspaper industry insiders are coming to realize this problem: Larry Kramer, a longtime newspaper editor and founder of CBS Marketwatch who was just named publisher of USA Today, has said in interviews that he wants to make the newspaper into much more of a “compendium of multiple voices” rather than one that has a single monolithic voice. As he described it in one interview:

I think both USA Today and CNN for a long time concentrated on the news being the voice. Now I think with Twitter and with all the different ways news is disseminated, people are looking for a little bit more of an interesting take on a story.

In many ways, the “View From Nowhere” developed over time as the newspaper business stopped being about independent voices and became more of a professional phenomenon — in other words, an industry made up of a few large chains owned by corporate conglomerates. Among other things, the practice of objectivity was designed to make these businesses appear less politically controversial and therefore more appealing to advertisers, who were trying to reach a mass market. But just as advertisers seem to be deserting that model, readers are also gravitating towards outlets with strong voices, regardless of whether they happen to be traditional or mainstream sources.

Buzz Bissinger, the reporter and author of Friday Night Lights, put his finger on part of the problem in a recent interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, when he described how the process of editing that most newspapers still engage in — where a story is read and edited by as many as half a dozen sub-editors — often kills whatever unique voice might have appeared in a story originally:

Newspaper editors are very cautious — too cautious. One of the things that I don’t miss about papers is the constant — as it goes up the food chain, one editor after another, after another, after another, and what happens is it loses its voice. Everyone takes a shot at it. It’s like making a bad movie.

Safe, homogenized, commodity news is not enough

As Kramer and others have noted, the “View From Nowhere” is also connected to another long-held staple of mainstream media, namely the commodity news that makes up much of a newspaper’s stock-in-trade — the story from yesterday, with all the same facts that a dozen other outlets have, with no point of view or added value. This also has to go, says Kramer. “We really can’t survive if all we do is commodity journalism,” he says. “We have to… say things differently [and] help people understand things.”

This is something that others have also argued for some time. Dan Froomkin, a former Washington Post editor and columnist who is now with the Huffington Post, wrote in 2009 that he believed “playing it safe is killing the American newspaper.” With the profusion of sources of information that the internet has created, he said, the last thing anyone needs is another source of voiceless, middle-of-the-road, commodity journalism. Instead of trying to smother or root out personal viewpoints, Froomkin said newspapers should be emphasizing them as much as possible, in order to cut through the noise coming from a thousand other outlets. As he put it:

We’re hiding much of our newsrooms’ value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it is mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community.

Larry Kramer’s comments make it sound as though he is considering an end to the “View From Nowhere,” for USA Today at least. Whether any other newspapers choose to take those kinds of steps remains to be seen. But as Jay Rosen points out, changing that kind of decades-old approach to the news “isn’t as simple as hiring a few bloggers or loosening the rules for writers. We’re talking about ideological change within an occupation that sees itself as having no ideology.” And that isn’t something you can fix by putting up a paywall.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Olaf Gradin

Larry Kramer will be moderating a panel featuring Jim Bankoff, chairman & CEO of Vox Media and
John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media at our paidContent 2012 conference on May 23 in NYC
.

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  1. Good post Mathew.

    Alnong the same lines, The Economist has an interesting format, where they give both sides but also provide a clear editorial point of view (usually in the last paragraph).

    I don’t know how this idea of complete objectivity arose, but it’s fairly recent. Newspapers historically had been very political (i.e. Benjamin Franklin Bache). While I don’t think we should go back to the days of hack journalism, I do think that opinion is important and, in fact, probably more honest than faux neutrality.

    – Greg

    1. Thanks, Greg — completely agree. The Economist actually had a great series on the future of journalism in which they argued that social media and the web were essentially just taking us back to the way media behaved in the early 19th century.

      1. How do we know that’s a good thing?

      2. How do we know it’s not, Rich?

      3. Rich, I guess we don’t know. But what we know for 100% to be true is that what’s being done now isn’t working. And I believe to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

    2. and that’s why I stopped reading it, it started to tell me what to think.

  2. I agree. The writer of that front-page article in the NY Times or Washington Post has probably been on his beat for 10 years. He (or she) knows the people involved in the story, their colleagues, the issues at hand.

    He knows that sometimes one persons’ version of the story is far more accurate than someone else’s, but he must pretend that all sides should get equal weight, even while his choice of quotes, and even the decision to run the story in the first place, all come out of some editorial bias or opinion. It’s all a waste of time, and it renders us less effective as voters.

    Let the writers tell us the truth as they see it. Let’s have the benefit of their brains and experience.

    1. A problem with writers giving their interpretations is that some of their sources might feel burned and be less inclined to co-operate on future stories. This is why many reporters prefer to leave it to columnists and editorialists to do this sort of thing.

  3. This is spot-on – the idea of reading a single news publication in the order some editor decided it should be presented is weird to me. It’s also the reason I generally hate Apple’s Newstand and Publisher’s dedicated Apps – I subscribed to a few and found them painful to use so removed them. If I find a publication consistently has good content, I’ll follow them on Twitter or pick up their RSS feed. New discovery generally from Reddit or Twitter users.

  4. I have to strongly disagree. When I pick up a paper I want to get “the news” fast and factual, not have to wade through a dozen partisan editorials and then try to piece together what actually happened.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris — and do you always go to a newspaper for that? Because fewer and fewer people are doing so, and that’s the core of the problem.

    2. Partisan editorials are one thing. Well-researched and well-sourced news stories are another. There is a lot of light between the two. The latter can still give an impression of which view is more truthful or has more evidence backing it up without being a partisan screed. As one of the earlier commenters said, look at The Economist. They give their viewpoint very clearly, but also present everything the reader needs to make up his or her own mind.

  5. Brian Killen Tuesday, May 22, 2012

    ‘To try to confront’, not ‘to try and confront’. So I stopped reading. If you missed something so simple what would you have to say about the problems confronting journalism today?

    “Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may be buying newspapers — a move that is probably as much about cash flow and real estate as it is a long-term investment thesis — but he can’t possibly buy them all, and that leaves the rest of the industry struggling to try and confront the issues that are causing their decline. One of those issues is the ongoing disruption in the….”

    1. I’m sorry a grammatical slip caused you to discard my entire argument, Brian, but thanks for stopping by anyway.

  6. US newspapers used to be considered the 4th branch of the US Govt., existing to keep the other 3 branches in line. Now MSM kowtows to the US Govt. for fear of losing access or loss of ‘embed’. It’s regulatory capture of a different kind (reverse?). Foreign news sources (Economist) are now the best because they haven’t been co-opted.

  7. Mark Herman Simon Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    It may shock most Americans to know, but by and large outside the US most newspapers are doing just fine in terms of remaining profitable and more importantly being the dominant content players in their markets.

    I would argue that even today in the US it is newspapers that remain the dominant source of news and the internet largely pings off them. (I happen to know the seniors at the Guardian share that opinion).

    As for letting writers run wild. I always think of the advice Dad gave me in my summer jobs about every construction worker thinking the foreman was a moron,,,as Dad said, always consider with caution the wisdom of a guy who works for a moron..

  8. Why does anyone, let alone someone as smart at Mathew Ingram, quote anything that Jay Rosen says, let alone glom on to one of his catch-phrases as if it is wisdom?

    Steve Brill

    1. Simple answer, Steve — because I happen to think he’s right. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Don Armstrong Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    It’s not just editors who instill institutional voice into copy, and in my view this isn’t necessarily a problem of industry trends.

    When I was an editor at a national sports magazine with a large contingent of newspaper sportswriter contributors, we pulled our hair out trying to get them to write in the own voice, but their work almost invariably came out in newspeak. When I was an editor at Entertainment Weekly, a job I had been reluctant to accept, I was pleasantly surprised by how insightful the editing and writing was, how idiosyncratic the stories were–a tribute, I think, to the managing editor and, of course, Time Inc.’s resources and prestige.

    Writing is a skill that must be developed over time with arduous practice. It’s not simply a natural impulse. Distinctive writing doesn’t happen just because you set a writer free. Whatever its flaws may be, one advantage of the large, institutional news source is that it creates an environment in which young writers can learn and practice and grow under the tutelage of experienced, and hopefully skilled, elder statesmen. The problem with the new model of media is that there isn’t enough talent or money to go around when “everybody” is writing and reporting. I have reason to believe, for example, that one of the Patch sites got the address and the photograph wrong in a recent report about President Obama having once lived in a nearby neighborhood. It also said that an old man who lived around the corner was, coincidentally, also named Barack Obama.

    There are, I believe, two keys to producing valuable journalism: having writers and editors who know the subject matter well and avoiding formulas, including the idea that giving writers freedom is the key to saving newspapers.

  10. Well, I am certainly in a minority here. I read the NYT, Reuters, WP, USA Today, Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune. The Chronicle uses wire service and articles from other papers, and it’s local articles in the business section express a point of view (i.e. Steffy). But the NYT and WP do do what is being criticized. I think their reporters give a point of view in their articles.
    I am satisfied with the coverage and varied insights by reporters.

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